MCG hears how apology can heal

Being a doctor doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry, a Medical College of Georgia professor told students and residents Wednesday.


In fact, apologies will probably result in fewer lawsuits and better relations with patients, said Alan Roberts, the chairman of the ethics committee at MCG. It is a growing trend among medical professionals to come clean to patients, and it pays off.

When the University of Michigan Health System began encouraging apologies and honesty with patients in 2002, its legal bills dropped from $3 million a year to $1 million a year and the number of lawsuits and threats to sue were cut in half, Dr. Roberts said.

"Lawsuits result from poor communication," he said.

And the reverse can also be true, said Brian McKinnon, an assistant professor in otolaryngology at MCG. While practicing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a resident under Dr. McKinnon made a mistake in surgery that left a patient extremely dizzy and with poor hearing. The patient's wife was furious, Dr. McKinnon said, but he did not defend himself or justify the mistake and owned up to it. Eventually the patient's family came around, and the patient improved, Dr. McKinnon said.

"She was floored that I had taken responsibility," he said. "The lesson was that the apology was critical because I came out and told the truth."

Physicians "should recognize and value that the use of apology in medical practice, as with other activities, has the power to heal," Dr. Roberts said. "It is essential that physicians develop skills and ethical principles to use apologies effectively and honestly in their interaction with patients and colleagues."

It's something that is on the mind of third-year internal medicine resident Christie Owens-Sloan.

"I think you always think about it because things happen," Dr. Owens-Sloan said. "Even when I keep a patient waiting, I routinely apologize."

Second-year resident Erika Grigg said that as a patient she complained about being kept waiting for two hours, but never got a response.

For patients, "If they knew of someone they could turn to or call or get in contact with to voice their complaints, that would be better," Dr. Grigg said.

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Georgia is one of 29 states that prohibit or limit the use of physician apologies in medical malpractice actions as a way of encouraging honest dialogue when events occur. Groups such as the Sorry Works! Coalition are working to increase the amount of disclosures and transparency in the system as a way of reducing errors and lawsuits at the same time.