“I’m sorry.” When delivered in a straightforward and heartfelt manner, those two little words are among the most powerful in the English language. In fact, research suggests organizations and individuals who admit wrongdoing and offer a swift, sincere mea culpa fare better – both in the court of law and the court of public opinion – than those who remain silent. More importantly, apologies can provide immeasurable comfort and begin the process of rebuilding trust.

While politicians and corporations alike seem to have mastered the art of the apology, hospitals and physicians are still struggling to incorporate the phrase into their everyday practice. When faced with evidence of medical error, providers have traditionally avoided acknowledging or apologizing out of fear of legal action. However, the movement towards transparency recently got a major boost with the launch of a patient apology program at seven major Massachusetts hospitals. Modeled after an honesty-based, patient safety-focused approach practiced by the University of Michigan Health System for more than a decade, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and other participants will provide an apology and settlement if a root cause analysis shows the provider or facility was at fault.

The program is the latest in a growing trend toward disclosure of medical errors in an effort to reduce liability claims. (I blogged about the sound communication principles behind the Sorry Works movement here). On the heels of the Massachusetts effort, the American Health Lawyers Association recently published guidance for providers and healthcare organizations to use in investigating and disclosing serious clinical adverse events. In addition to providing an overview of the regulatory and legal considerations associated with disclosure, the resource serves as a checklist for planning outreach to regulatory agencies, patients and families, media and other third parties.

While apologies should never be offered carelessly and there are many considerations that must be thoroughly evaluated before making a disclosure, taking a more human approach to communicating medical mistakes seems like a significant step in the right direction. Avoiding communication with patients and families not only erodes the trust patients place in healthcare providers, but also undermines the goodwill they work so hard to build. Establishing an open dialogue backed by meaningful change isn’t just the right communications strategy – it’s the right thing to do.

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