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GPs encouraged to say sorry if things go wrong

15 May 2009

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GPs are advised to apologise to patients if something goes wrong, though an apology does not mean an admission of liability, says the Medical Defence Union (MDU).

Dr Christine Tomkins, MDU Chief Executive, said: “Any patient who has had the misfortune to suffer through an error of whatever nature should receive a full explanation and a genuine apology.

“Patients should receive a prompt, open sympathetic and honest account of what has happened.”

She explained: “There are no legal concerns about taking this course of action. In fact it is now enshrined in law in Section 2 of the Compensation Act 2006, which says: ‘An apology, offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.’”

The MDU says its experience is that an explanation and apology at an early stage can help reduce the risk of a complaint and is often all that a patient or a relative wants to hear.

The MDU endorses Apologies and Explanations, guidance from the National Health Service Litigation Authority (NHSLA), which was circulated to chief executives and finance directors at all NHS bodies yesterday (14 May 2009).

The guidance emphasises that an apology is “natural and desirable” where there has been an adverse outcome and that an explanation can help patients and their families in these circumstances.

Dr Tomkins added: “It is occasionally suggested that medical defence organisations actively discourage our members from saying sorry. This is a myth and we welcome another opportunity to set the record straight.

“Doctors have an ethical obligation to offer an apology and an explanation if something has gone wrong and there is no legal reason not to do so.”