Apologies are actually a frequent part of everyday medical practice

In an excellent recent cover article in the Boston Globe Magazine, Darshak Sanghavi explored a fascinating phenomenon: patients are less likely to sue doctors who admit they’ve made a mistake, particularly if they apologize for their errors. Innovative programs, such as one at the University of Michigan, encourage physicians to reveal their mistakes to patients, express remorse, and offer compensation to patients who may have been harmed by those mistakes—even if those patients haven’t sued them.

But less dramatic apologies are actually a frequent and important part of everyday medical practice. I say “I’m sorry” all day long–and so do my colleagues.

I’m sorry I’ve kept you waiting.

This may hurt a little.

I apologize for not calling you back earlier.

I’m afraid I have bad news.

I wish you didn’t have to go through this.

Are these many expressions of regret uttered so often in other kinds of offices? Do they simply reflect kindness or good manners?

I’m not so sure.

I think that, often, in apologizing we are not so much accepting blame, or feeling sorry for our patients, or even being reflexively courteous, as trying to put ourselves in our patients’ shoes, to imagine their pain. In other languages, the use of apology to express empathy is more evident than it is in English. For example, “I’m sorry” in Italian is “mi dispiace”–it displeases me. The implication is that what hurts you hurts me as well.

Google “doctors + apology” and you’ll see dozens of references to doctors’ apologizing to preempt malpractice litigation. In reality, what’s much more common, and little spoken of, is apologizing to show that we care.

Suzanne Koven is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In Practice at Boston.com, where this article originally appeared. She is the author of Say Hello To A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness For Women Over 50

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