Laws that allow doctors to apologize to patients after an adverse event are intended to protect physicians who want to say they’re sorry but not have that considered an admission of guilt, but their effectiveness is questionable, according to a new study.

The research from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, indicates that apology laws are “intuitively appealing but empirically unfounded,” says Benjamin J. McMichael, JD, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Medical and legal professionals have been hopeful that apology laws would reduce the incidence of patients suing for malpractice because many such lawsuits are prompted by anger and feelings of neglect, he notes.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia passed apology laws, but the Vanderbilt research suggests they have not been successful in reducing claims. The researchers used a data bank that includes all malpractice claims from 2004 to 2011 for 90% of physicians practicing in a single specialty across the country, attained from a national malpractice insurer. Seventy-five percent were surgeons. (An abstract of the study is available online at:

The researchers assumed that apology laws increase the number of apologies, since the data did not reveal whether the doctor actually apologized. Analysis of 3,517 claims revealed that 2.6% of doctors per year face a malpractice lawsuit a year, and of those, 65.4% of those sued end up in court. Of those sued, 51.4% pay the claimant something and 34.6% settle a claim without involving the courts.

Of that 34.6%, 7.1% settle out of court and pay the claimant something and 27.5% have claims dropped without paying the claimant anything.

“In general, the results are not consistent with the intended effect of apology laws, as these laws do not generally reduce either the total number of claims or the number of claims that result in a lawsuit,” according to the study. “Apology laws have no statistically significant effect on the probability that surgeons experience either a non-suit claim or a lawsuit.”