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GPs should consider saying sorry when things go wrong, says report

28 March 2016

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Doctors should not underestimate the importance of saying sorry when things go wrong, a medical defence union advises.

The guidance from the UK-wide Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) follows the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s An Opportunity to Improve report into the way GP practices in England deal with complaints.

The report, recommends apologising as part of an open and honest approach, along with listening, learning, acting professionally and ensuring practice staff understand what is expected of them.

MDDUS’ chief executive Chris Kenny said this month’s report was a timely reminder of statutory obligations and good practice.

He said apologising for mistakes can defuse a situation.

“In our experience, a sincere apology can prevent a patient complaint from escalating and we remind doctors that saying sorry is not an admission of guilt or liability in any potential litigation, not is it a sign of weakness.”

He stressed: “In fact, at times it is the right thing to do and a genuine apology may be all that a patient wants.”

Complaints for patients rank as the most common reason doctors seek advice from MDDUS.

The organisation’s medical advisor Dr Greg Dollman said often simply listening to a patient’s concerns and understand them can help.

He advised doctors adopting an open and honest approach as the best way of resolving complaints at the earliest possible opportunity.

“Doctors should avoid acting defensively and instead show empathy, responding objectively after consideration of the patient’s point of view.”

He suggested that if doctors identify any failings in their care of a patient they should offer “a sincere expression of sorrow or regret” at the earliest opportunity and an explanation of what went wrong.

Even in situations where a doctor does not think a mistake has been made it is still possible to use a conciliatory tone and express regret that the patient is unhappy, he said.