How to Apologize for a Medical Error

Apologizing to a patient when an error occurs is critical to reducing malpractice risks, but it's very difficult to do the right way. Here are some tips.

Apologizing to a patient when an error occurs is critical to reducing malpractice risks, says Sue Larsen, president and director of education at Astute Doctor Education, Inc. "They always say that anger and not injury is what drives a patient to sue, and everybody hates a cover up," she says. "So when something goes wrong and the physician goes missing, that's when the patient feels deserted and they suspect that something has gone wrong." Ultimately, Larsen says, that anger and the resulting broken relationship with the physician can propel the patient to sue.

Of course, apologizing for a medical error is not easy, and Larsen says how you say sorry is crucial. Make sure your apology is:

• Sincere;

• Empathetic; and

• Indicates mutual disappointment.

"As a doctor, you are disappointed in the outcome and you are sorry the patient is disappointed as well," says Larsen. "This isn't admitting fault, it just is a way of showing the patient that you care and that you understand."

Once you make the apology to the patient, emphasize that you are committed to ensuring this error will never happen again, and that you are going to follow up to determine why the error occurred.

Then, attend to the patient's immediate needs that you can address, says Larsen. "Avoiding the patient or deserting the patient is absolutely the worst thing you can do, and it's going to put you at a much higher risk of having a claim made against you."

To help you determine the right approach next time you need to make an apology, Larsen shared this example of the proper phrasing to use:

"I'm really sorry this has happened to you, it's obviously not the outcome that any of us would have liked to have seen. I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed that you have had to go through this. I know that you are feeling very upset and frustrated that this has happened and perhaps even quite angry, and I can understand that you'd be feeling that way. All I can do is say I'm sorry that you are in this situation and we are going to do everything we possibly can to try and understand the events leading up to this so that we can avoid it happening again. In the meantime, I'd like you to know that I am here for you, if there is anything I can do."