The importance of physician apologies after medical errors


Apologies should not be complicated. If you wrong someone, you should apologize sincerely and accept any reasonable consequences that may accompany their acceptance or rejection of your apology. For better and for worse, apologies granted to patients by physicians who have made mistakes are not often so straightforward.

Many physicians fail to admit their mistakes and apologize due to fear that the wronged patient will sue them for medical malpractice. Interestingly, studies have proven time and again that physicians are more likely to be sued if an error is discovered and patients have not been granted the courtesy of a heartfelt apology. However, fear of potential litigation still too often overrides the common-sense approach of apologizing to patients whom physicians have harmed.

Some experts argue that teaching physicians how to disclose errors, admit responsibility for them and apologize sincerely would greatly help to facilitate a culture of accountability and patient safety within the healthcare industry. If a patient-physician relationship is primarily based on trust, then ownership for mistakes will help to cultivate that trust. In addition, studies have proven time and again that when physicians openly admit their mistakes and learn from them, everyone benefits.

If your physician apologizes to you, you are neither obligated to pursue a malpractice claim or refrain from pursuing one. Ultimately, that decision must be made with your unique situation and best interests in mind. But whether or not an apology emboldens you to hold your physician accountable for negligence, you certainly deserve an apology if you have been harmed as a result of his or her actions. The medical community as a whole would do well to keep this fact in mind.

Source: Washington Post, “Medical errors are hard for doctors to admit, but it’s wise to apologize to patients,” Manoj Jain, May 27, 2013

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