Mistakes are made in healthcare, causing some patients to express dissatisfaction with their care. Doctors are encouraged to apologise wherever possible. An apology is not considered as an admission of liability, however, but an acknowledgement of a patient’s feelings and often a manner of preventing formal complaint.
Offering an Apology
Doctors should always offer an apology at the earliest opportunity – even if this is before all the facts have been ascertained. Depending on the circumstances, doctors may have to meet with the patient over the following weeks to establish what exactly occurred, with no requirement to answer any questions without adequate information. However, a doctor should never feel like an apology is inappropriate – it is a professional and empathetic way to deal with an unhappy patient and is more likely to solve problems than exacerbate them.
An apology is appropriate when it is clear that a patient has suffered harm or has been misled in the course of their care. Doctors are encouraged to apologise for what has happened, not for what they have done. They should also tailor their apologies to the situation and appear to give them willingly.
Doctors should review the event in its entirety and include the patient in the process. Ultimately, doctors may use the incident as an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of it recurrence.
Where subpar care or clinical errors are evident, doctors should acknowledge this in their apology. This should not be done, however, before consulting with senior colleagues or – if necessary – a medical defence organisation or union representative.
It may sometimes be appropriate for doctors to offer compensation in the form of covering follow-up costs, good will reimbursement of some expenses, or waiving fees altogether. Remuneration of any kind should always be cleared with the doctor’s senior colleagues.