How to Apologize Like You Mean It

Everybody makes mistakes. Physicians — even the best, most well-intentioned ones — make mistakes. It might be a serious medical mistake. It might be something offensive you said to a patient, or a HIPAA misstep where you revealed information about a patient to a family member without the patient’s permission.

“Regardless of the nature of the mistake, if you are truly responsible, then you must take steps to correct the mistake as much as possible and hopefully avoid further problems, like lawsuits or complaints,” says attorney Victoria Soto, author of World’s Best Doctors: How Good Old-Fashioned Manners Improve Patient Satisfaction and Can Lower Litigation Risk.

One of those steps is to apologize. But it’s important to do it right, or you may make matters worse, Ms. Soto says. “A bad apology can do as much damage as a lie, making people feel like they’re not being taken seriously and that their pain isn’t being respected. That can make them even more motivated to file a complaint or seek retribution against the doctor,” she says.

Ms. Soto says these six components add up to a good apology: 

  1. Say the words. Don’t beat around the bush or ramble on about what happened. If you want people to understand you’re apologizing to them, you need to say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”
  2. Acknowledge what you’re apologizing for. You can’t just say, “I’m sorry.” You need to be specific about the mistake you made.
  3. Make it clear that you’re taking responsibility for what happened. “I’m sorry this happened to you” doesn’t feel genuine. Make it clear that you understand and acknowledge that you’re at fault in some way. You need to say, “I’m sorry that I played a part in causing this to happen to you.” 
  4. Apologize to the right person. Don’t apologize to, say, the hospital administrator for the mistake you made in the care of a patient.” Apologize to the patient (and maybe also to the hospital administrator if it is appropriate). 
  5. Take a broad view of whom your actions affected. Apologize to others in addition to the patient who may have suffered repercussions from your mistake. Perhaps it’s the patient’s spouse or another physician involved in the patient’s care (or that hospital administrator).
  6. Make it clear how you will make up for your mistake, and how you’ll make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen in the future. 

Depending on the circumstances, you may want to consult an attorney to help you find the right words for your apology.

World’s Best Doctors is available in the TMA Education Center along with other continuing medical education courses on the patient-physician relationship. 

Published Nov. 15, 2016

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November 15, 2016