Apology in Medical Practice: A Changing View
Whether it is an inadvertent act of running over a family’s pet cat or a physician’s medical error, an apology is the decent and humane act to provide those suffering the result of the act.
Apology is particularly needed in the medical profession where unintended errors or errors due to carelessness or ignorance can occur with degrees of injury leading up to death of a patient. And yet, it has only been in recent years that the value of apology was stressed. In the past complications of diagnosis or treatment that were ignored, not fully explained or explained without admission of personal responsibility. In the past, apology by a physician for a consequence in medical care was considered an invitation for a malpractice lawsuit and physicians were advised by some lawyers and hospital risk-management staff to be empathetic in their response to the patient or family (“I can understand how you feel and it must be very upsetting”) but nothing further since anything suggesting an apology would be an admission of guilt if the case was brought to trial.
Recent experience with apology and an offer of helping to compensate has suggested that less malpractice legal actions are taken. The therapeutic value of an apology cannot be underestimated. It can change the uncertainties and anger of a patient or family into one of understanding and tolerance.
To read more about the benefit to all for doctor’s to apologize, you can go to the “Sorry Works Coalition” website Also read the Forward by Robert Ward for the book “On Apology” by Aaron Lazare which provides some historical background. Finally, you can read a personal response to a physician’s apology by Trisha Torrey on About.com: Patient Empowerment.
An apology is an act for one human being to offer to another which is a sign of humanism and understanding but also can be a form of therapy to the potential suffering of the other.
Graphic: Digital photograph taken by me today of a neighborhood sign.