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Saying "I'm Sorry" Can Prevent Angry Patients

While most docs are scared to death to admit any kind of misstep, an apology in the right circumstances can turn the corner and avoid an escalation in unpleasantness. Trying to talk a patient into believing that their eye isn't acctually drooping is just not going to work.

“The majority of people who file medical lawsuits file out of anger, not greed,” says Sorry Works! founder Doug Wojcieszak. “That anger is driven by lack of communication, being abandoned by doctors and no one taking responsibility for his mistakes. Apologizing and offering some up-front compensation reduces this anger.

” Seventeen states have enacted apology laws; some make remorseful words inadmissible in court if uttered soon after mishaps occur. U.S. Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced the Reliable Medical Justice Act on June 29 to provide federal funding for apology projects around the nation. While the need for federal grants here is a mystery, Washington should encourage this concept without reflexively whipping out the checkbook. Implementing it in VA hospitals would be a solid start.


Reader Comments (2)

While I agree that saying "sorry" can go a long way in helping patients heal from medical errors or mistakes, I think there are many other "grey areas" that occur in medicine. Aesthetic medicine is a field where people have high expectations...some of which might even be unreasonable. Here it is imperative to counsel before procedures as to possible outcomes. Explain what may or may not occur as fully as possible in order to manage expectations. So often a mistake or error has not necessarily taken place, but the patient's expectations were not met. What may ensue is a situation that is frustrating for both patients and physicians. I think most people would tend to agree that human nature is to avoid confrontation. Many of these unsatisfied patients are labeled as "complainers" or "problem patients." And many physicians just brush off these patients leaving them even more frustrated and disgruntled.

An apology may not be the appropriate sentiment and saying “I’m sorry you feel unsatisfied” may sound patronizing. The best approach may actually be the one that, at first, feels the most uncomfortable or laborious. But I have found that taking the time to sit down, face to face and to truly listen to what the patient has to say (without interrupting) is often all that is necessary. After they have finished, it might be appropriate to explain why something different from what they had expected did indeed occur. And finally try to rectify or fix their area of dissatisfaction, if it is possible. What I want them to understand is that I do care about whether or not they are happy and that I will try to do everything in my power to make them feel satisfied. As much as most physicians may not want to admit it, we are in a service industry where “the customer is always right.” So much of what we do is judged subjectively and there isn’t always a “right” or “wrong.” And if they are upset then it is the least we can do to offer support and exceptional customer service.
Sorry only works if there isn't some sort of permanent irreversible damage. No amount of money will even help. It will be a lifelong scar that will not quickly fade with a mere "I'm Sorry." It depends upon the circumstance. If the condition is "cured" or "healed", then sorry might help.

You just can't put a price on incompetence let alone an "I'm sorry", Unfortunately, so much about medicine today has become about a "healthy bottom line rather than healthy patients" (The Angry Patient (c)) and we believe is a contributing factor to the incompetence. Hurried and overburdened doctors and nurses make mistakes, sometimes fatal ones.

Check out the patient's diary at It is quite a frightening thing to read about.

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