Medicolegal Issues

The apology in medicine—yes, no, or maybe?

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Institutional policy and apology

Some institutions have established an “inclusion of apology” strategy for medical errors. These policies appear to have a meaningful effect on reducing medical malpractice costs. These programs commonly include a proactive investigation, disclosure of error, and apologies. Such policies have been studied at the University of Michigan and the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. The University of Michigan program resulted in a 60% reduction in compensation costs for medical errors.22 It also cut litigation costs by half.23 The review of the Kentucky VA program also was positive.17 FIGURE 2 illustrates the key features of the Michigan program.24

Conclusions: Effective apologies

Our conclusions, first, are that apologies are important from all perspectives: ethical, medical, and legal. On the other hand, all of the attention given in recent years to apology statutes may have been misplaced, at least if they were intended to be malpractice reform.17

Institutional apology and response programs are likely successful because they are thoughtfully put together, generally based on the best understanding of how injured patients respond to apologies and what it takes to be sincere, and communicate that sincerity, in the apology. What is an effective apology?, “The acceptance of responsibility for having caused harm.” It may, for example, mean accepting some financial responsibility for the harm. It is also important that the apology is conveyed in such a way that it includes an element of self-critical expression.25 Although there are many formulations of the elements of an effective apology, one example is, “(1) acknowledging and accepting responsibility for the offense; (2) expressing remorse with forbearance, sincerity, and honesty; (3) explaining the understanding of the offense; and (4) willingness to make reparations.”26

At the other extreme is a medical professional, after a bad event, trying to engage in a half-hearted, awkward, or insincere apology on an ad hoc and poorly planned basis. Worse still, “when victims perceive apologies to be insincere and designed simply to cool them off, they react with more rather than less indignation.”27 Of course, the “forced apology” may be the worst of all. An instance of this was addressed in a New Zealand study in which providers were “forced” to provide a written apology to a couple (Mr. and Mrs. B) and a separate written apology to Baby B when there was failure to discuss vitamin K administration during the antenatal period when it was indicated.28 Rather than emphasizing required apology in such a case, which can seem hollow and disingenuous, emphasis was placed on the apology providing a “positive-physiological” effect for those harmed, and on strategies that “nurture the development of the moral maturity required for authentic apology.”

The great advantage of institutional or practice-wide policies is that they can be developed in the calm of planning, with good foresight and careful consideration. This is much different from having to come up with some approach in the heat of something having gone wrong. Ultimately, however, apologies are not about liability. They are about caring for, respecting, and communicating with those who are harmed. Apologizing is often the right and professional thing to do.

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