The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 10, 2013

Helping docs avoid lawsuits

Senators’ legislation a worthy initiative

— Editorial writers and writers to opinion-page forums loathe frivolous lawsuits and frivolous legislation. So why are there so many examples of both?

One answer is that what is frivolous to some, may not be to others.

In any case, we welcome state legislation that puts focus on a major state and national issue: Medical liability action – or lawsuits against medical professionals.

It’s so serious that some highly qualified surgeons we know have retired early or have given up operating, either to avoid high incidence of malpractice lawsuits or the high costs of insurance to defend them.

Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Vance of Dauphin County and Gene Yaw of Lycoming County are hoping they have an answer with legislation intended to shield doctors who apologize after something goes wrong with a patient’s medical treatment.

What’s happening too often, as reported last week by John Finnerty of the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau, is that families are filing suits because they are not getting the answers they believe they’re entitled to from hospitals and doctors.

That explanation was provided by Dan Davis, director of bioethics for Geisinger Health System, based in Danville, Moutour County.    

Specifically, the senators’ bill makes any benevolent gesture made prior to the commencement of a medical liability action by a health care provider, assisted living residence or personal care home inadmissible as evidence of liability or an admission against interest.

In other words, simple actions such as talking or apologizing to a patient or family could avert some lawsuits.

“I think this piece of legislation is a great compromise,” Yaw said. “It allows doctors to make expressions of sympathy without fear that those expressions will be used as a weapon against them, yet the legislation still preserves the rights of individuals to pursue claims for substandard health care.”

Added Davis, “If the aim is to be benevolent, honesty is the far better means to that end than deception. (At Geisinger), we have an explicit policy that you should disclose, within 24 hours, a medical error that poses an actual or possibility of harm.”

That’s a good policy.

The bill has passed in the Senate and now goes to the state House, where we urge members to get on board the debate.

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