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Malpractice lawsuits get harder to initiate
Changes to Virginia's medical malpractice laws will make it easier for a doctor to apologize to a patient or family.

Date published: 7/1/2005

By JIM HALL

Virginia doctors will now be able to tell their patients, "I'm sorry," and not have to worry that their words will be used against them.

Expressions of sympathy after a bad medical outcome are encouraged under several changes being made to the state's medical malpractice laws. The changes, which take effect today, also include:

A requirement that the Virginia Board of Medicine identify and retrain incompetent doctors.

A requirement that plaintiffs who believe they have been injured by a doctor's negligence must get an "expert witness" to certify their malpractice claim.

The three changes are part of a package of medical malpractice provisions that passed the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year.

The "I'm sorry" bill reflects a growing recognition nationwide that both patients and doctors want doctors to offer their sympathy when something bad happens during treatment.

Doctors have long been afraid to express condolences to patients or families, for fear that their words might become an admission of liability in a malpractice suit, said Dr. Philip C. Casey, a Fredericksburg internist and past president of the Fredericksburg Area Medical Society.

The change recognizes that "medicine is filled with bad outcomes that are not due to malpractice," Casey said. "It's perfectly reasonable to say you're sorry."

The new requirement for an expert witness may eliminate some frivolous malpractice claims, said Benjamin W. Glass III, a Fairfax lawyer who is a member of the board of governors of the Virginia Trial Lawyers' Association.

A plaintiff's attorney will now be required to have a written opinion signed by a qualified person, saying that the health-care provider did not meet the standard of care and that this caused the plaintiff's injury. The certification will be necessary before the claim can proceed through the state court system.

"Most experienced malpractice lawyers are already doing this," Glass said.

Casey said the change is an acknowledgement that malpractice claims are cheap to file but costly to defend.

"If you're going to file a suit, do your homework before filing and not afterwards," he said.

The third change to state law places new responsibilities on the Virginia Board of Medicine to continually monitor doctors' competence and treat those who don't measure up.

The board will now be required to review the skills of any provider who has three malpractice claims paid in 10 years.


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