Doug Wojcieszak of Illinois understands just how powerful the words “I’m sorry” can be.
“We got money, but no apology, no explanation,” said Wojcieszak, who testified in favor of “I’m Sorry” legislation in front of the House Labor Committee yesterday, about the events following his oldest brother’s death due to medical error.
Using his personal experience and work in public affairs for the Illinois legislature, Wojcieszak began Sorry Works!, an advocacy and training group that promotes medical disclosure practices.
“It’s about keeping people connected if something goes wrong,” said Wojcieszak, explaining that the relationship between doctors and patients can be one of the most important and should not be jeopardized by a doctor’s inability to show empathy. Wojcieszak spoke in an interview with the Beacon prior to his testimony at the State House.
Wojcieszak was asked to come and testify at yesterday’s hearing by Steven DeToy and the Rhode Island Medical Society (RIMS).
DeToy, RIMS and Warwick Representative Joseph McNamara have sought to get an “I’m Sorry,” or benevolent gestures, law onto the books for almost five years, and DeToy often used the Sorry Works! website as a resource.
“I think that there is a possibility that those in the legal practices have debated whether or not these expressions of sympathy are immiscible in court,” said McNamara in a phone interview on the failure of previous bills.
Even following the high profile support of actor and Warwick native James Woods during last year’s campaign, no law was passed. After Woods’ brother, Michael, died, the actor brought a lawsuit against Kent Hospital. As part of a settlement, the hospital set up the Michael Woods Institute to facilitate new hospital procedures.
Currently, 36 states have versions of “I’m Sorry” laws, including Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“If something seems the least bit good for doctors, lawyers oppose it; if something is the least bit good for patients, the medical community opposes it,” said Wojcieszak, who has visited almost 45 states to speak about his disclosure process.
“The way our legal system works, both sides are told not to talk to each other,” said DeToy, adding that the ability for doctors and families to have conversations and gain closure leads to fewer medical malpractice lawsuits.
McNamara echoed this fact, explaining that when Michigan Medical Center adopted a similar practice in 2002, the number of malpractice suits was cut in half over five years.
Despite the state’s history, DeToy and McNamara are hopeful that this year’s more refined legislation will change the minds of the committee.
In addition to the removal of an unanticipated outcomes clause that caused concern in previous years, DeToy believes the fact that many committee members are familiar with the issue will make a change.
“At some point, it’s common sense,” said DeToy. “It’s inevitable.”
Wojcieszak sees three main reasons for the implementation of “I’m sorry” legislation: reducing instances of medical malpractice, making medical practice safer and helping to heal doctors and nurses.
“Doctors and nurses suffer as much as we do,” said Wojcieszak, explaining that cases of depression, broken families and suicides are common among medical practitioners involved in medical errors.
In Wojcieszak’s opinion, legislation such as this speeds up the process of implementing his disclosure education. Wojcieszak explained that he trains individuals in the medical field, whether they are doctors, hospitals or council, to start by having a conversation with the family. They can apologize without hesitation for the situation, inform the family that a review will be conducted within a few days and offer to help the family with anything they may need.
“If we can fix the problems, why do we have to go to court? We got money, but no apology, no explanation,” said Wojcieszak.
Following the initial meeting, a review of what happened is conducted by third party experts from places such as Harvard and Stanford. Once the review is complete, the report is given to the family.
If it is found that the doctors or hospital is at fault, they apologize, and offer to provide financial and emotional assistance. If no mistake is discovered, the report is provided to the family and they are welcome to conduct their own review with their own experts.
“At the end of the day, either side can still go to court,” said Wojcieszak. He adds that if mistakes are found through the use of these reviews, similar mistakes can be avoided in the future.
McNamara sees the presence of apology laws as beneficial to doctor-patient relationships.
“It is a very human emotion, when someone makes a mistake to expect them to apologize. The fact that medical practitioners have been hesitant to do this because it can be used against them in medical malpractice suits has been very detrimental to the doctor-patient relationship,” he said.
McNamara went on to say that the law provides “therapeutic closure” for both doctors and patients.
Yesterday afternoon, Wojcieszak was hopeful that his testimony not only sent a message to the committee but to the entire Rhode Island medical community that “this is good for you.”
Even if no decision is made regarding the creation of an apology law in Rhode Island, Wojcieszak encourages his process in area hospitals. He has trained doctors and hospitals in areas with and without the presence of a law. He also takes calls from individual doctors who need help handling a particular situation.