The Power of An Apology

When a medical professional can say “I’m sorry” for a medical error it can be very powerful and healing.  It is not easy for a doctor or nurse to apologize for a medical error because the fear of a law suit is real.  But medical professionals can be overwhelmed with guilt, shame and emotional distress after an incidence.  No one wants to cause harm and when it happens it is devastating for both patient and doctor or nurse.

There is growing evidence that when the medical professional is allowed to apologize, it opens the door of communication and forgiveness.  In the past, a complaint I heard often when a medical error occurred, was that the doctor or nurse never communicated the event or said they were sorry.  The patient felt anger at the event and that the doctor/nurse was uncaring.  The patient just wanted more information.

The simple words, “I am sorry”, are so powerful in stopping confusion, misunderstanding and stress.  It just doesn’t help the patient but the doctor or nurse.  Medical professionals often suffer in silence.  It is not part of the healthcare culture to speak of mistakes or error.  There is not support within most medical institutions to verbalize or openly acknowledge an error.  Imagine knowing you made a mistake yet there avenue to speak about it?  I know  it would eat me alive.

In Massachusetts, a recently enacted law, allows medical professionals to apologize to the patient in the institution without the fear of it being used in a malpractice suit.  The law has created a law suit free zone.  It doesn’t mean the patient can’t sue but  the apologize cannot be used.

Massachusetts also enacted a law that if a medical error occurs and designated as a preventable incident, then the hospital is responsible for all bills.  In the past, if an incident occurred, the patient would still be billed for insurance differences or private pay.  It surely added insult to injury.  I had a client who went into the hospital for a partial hysterectomy ended up in the ICU because the surgeon had nicked an blood vessel.  The hospital sent her a bill for over $3,000.

The culture of silence over medical errors needs to change.  It causes such pain and suffering for all parties.  For further information on this issue go to