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Typically, offering an apology doesn’t come easily; finding fault is much easier than admitting fault. And clearly when the stakes are high, as they are in medicine, a decision to admit fault can have outsized consequences.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “apology movement” or “Sorry Works! Coalition” that encourages medical professionals to apologize to patients in the event an outcome has gone wrong.
Nearly 30 states have passed “I’m sorry” laws that allow physicians to inform patients of errors and even to apologize without the statements being used against them in court.
Some physicians and hospital groups encourage apologies as a heartfelt, human response to an adverse event that not only eases patient anger but also reduces lawsuits.
Some public relations consultants also urge taking the apology road, including Minnesota-based Jim Lewandowski, whose advice on his specialty — crisis management — ran in this column last year. He boils it down to this: “If you do what you Mom taught you to do, everything will work out,” meaning, he said, that admitting fault and “seeking forgiveness” allows all parties to relax a bit and tends to take the primal emotional drive for retribution out of the equation.
“The patient may still sue,” he said, “but often not for damages.”
Still it is a bit chilling to take such a risk when a reputation and life’s work hang in the balance, with no guarantee that an apology won’t backfire in court.
Petra von Heimburg, a dentist and attorney in Barrington, IL (and a columnist for the CDS Review), acknowledged that an apology might seem right in the moment, but dentists should first pause.
“While it is a normal reaction to apologize when events go wrong or at least do not turn out as anticipated, as an attorney, I advise to consider the entirety of the situation the dentist finds him/herself in first, before doing so,” said Dr. von Heimburg.
She offers two different and helpful scenarios:
Dr. von Heimburg noted that unlike a hospital staff, the individual dentist (and his or her staff) is very much identified with service and quality of care, which stokes the success of the practice and the dentist’s reputation.
If the dentist and staff properly convey “caring, concern and attention,” she said, patients may feel less likely to jump to legal threats in an adverse event.
“Often patients can not judge the quality of the work done,” Dr. von Heimburg said, “but they surely notice if the dentist and staff exhibit a caring attitude, return their calls and pay attention to them.”
One might say the jury is still out on the apology movement, but dentists and doctors who care will always succeed.
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