Physicians reluctant to apologize when things go wrong, study shows

By Greg Hamilton • Published: May 15th, 2017
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

As kids, many of us were taught to own up to our mistakes and to apologize to those we may have wronged. A new study indicates those important life lessons may have been lost on some of today’s physicians.

British researchers presented more than 300 primary care physicians at three locations with two hypothetical scenarios, one involving a delayed diagnosis of breast cancer and the other a breakdown in care coordination that led to a delayed response to patient symptoms. More than 70 percent of the responding physicians said they would provide the patient with only a limited or no apology, limited or no explanation or information, according to a report published in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety. More than half of the doctors said they would not volunteer an apology or would offer only a vague expression of regret.

The threat of a malpractice suit was a factor, with many physicians indicating it was likely the patient would take legal action. Some doctors said they would hesitate to talk about the circumstances out of uncertainty over whether their actions affected the patient’s outcome or the perceived seriousness of the problem.

The researchers noted that full disclosure, including a statement of regret, an explanation of what occurred, acceptance of responsibility and commitment to prevent recurrences has been a standard for nearly a decade. They urged a greater focus on this from an institutional and training level. For patients, the message is that physicians are humans, too, and make mistakes like everyone else. But apologies may remain difficult to come by.