Home > doctor patient communications > Patient Love Means Saying You’re Sorry

Patient Love Means Saying You’re Sorry


Stop and think about the last time you made a mistake in your practice of medicine.

Did you apologize?

This is a sore spot, a topic better swept under the practice rug as far as most physicians are concerned. When you, as a healthcare professional, make a mistake, it can be life-threatening or life ending. That’s not the same as the mistakes I make which may be as easy to fix as using the delete key.

And when you make a mistake, I can only imagine the heartache and conscience-tugging it must cost for you. If you have an ounce of human decency, I have no doubt it takes a toll on your psyche.

And yes, I know for many of you, you are taught/told/ordered NOT to apologize. Gawd-forbid you should own up because the legal vultures will descend on you like flies-on-pooky.

Along comes the University of Michigan to the rescue. They have spent the last several years working on the right way to apologize — early — including compensation to the damaged patients. The results?

Malpractice claims against his health system fell from 121 in 2001 to 61 in 2006, while the backlog of open claims went from 262 in 2001 to 106 in 2006 and 83 in 2007. Between 2001 and 2007, the average time to process a claim fell from about 20 months to about eight months, costs per claim were halved and insurance reserves dropped by two-thirds.

Other health systems are paying attention, too, from Boston Medical Center to the University of Illinois to California’s Stanford University Hospital.

The only nay-sayer in the article?  Happens to be an attorney.  Go figure.

I have personal experience with this. After suffering my misdiagnosis, I was so VERY angry — angry at the pathology labs that misread my biopsy, and even angrier at the oncologist who insisted I begin chemo, even though there was so much evidence to the contrary. After it was confirmed by the NIH that I did not have cancer after all, I fully expected apologies from the doctors who were wrong. Not only did the oncologist not apologize, he wrote me a three page letter telling me why he was right to insist I begin chemo! Eventually, one of the pathologists did apologize to me. It was an overwhelming experience.

If you aren’t familiar, a group called SorryWorks! can help you move yourself or your organization toward apologies that work. They work for the patient, against lawsuits and perhaps, for you, toward far more peace of mind.

Appropriate apologies can be win-win-win. Which of your patients should hear one?


Learn more about Trisha and her work.

Learn more about Trisha’s book
You Bet Your Life! The 10 Mistakes Every Patient Makes

(How to Fix Them to Get the Healthcare You Deserve)

  1. July 26, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Thanks for pointing me to you blog, Trisha. I will definitely include you on my blog-roll and have picked you up on Twitter.

    Transparency and disclosure are key elements needed to make healthcare the reliable industry it can, and should, be. You’ve said many helpful things here. The idea that a mistake–akin to what the average citizen makes on a routine day–can kill if made by a healthcare professional is one that needs more vetting. The reason that airplances don’t crash is that the aviation industry assumes humans are fallible and designs processes that mitigate the potential for human errors to cause harm. (It doesn’t mean that a plane doesn’t rely on a skilled operator, but the high consequence points have far tighter designs and constraints than anything we routinely use in healthcare.) An important “next-step” in healthcare will be for providers to recognize their fallibility and embrace processes that “slow them down.”

    I just finished reading David Marx’ book “Whack-a-Mole” in which he meticulously describes the consequences we all–patients and providers–pay for expecting perfection. Highly satsifying read! Take care and thanks for your good work!


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