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Should clinicians say, “I’m sorry?”

Healthcare comes with high stakes. A misdiagnosis or an unobserved condition can lead to serious consequences. Clinicians know the gravity of the risks involved, and they hold themselves accountable to fittingly high standards.

Just as it’s important for clinicians to recognize humanity in their patients, it’s also essential for them to recognize humanity in themselves. This means accepting human frailty and fallibility. It means accepting the fact that, sometimes, they too will make mistakes—but that afterwards, they will be left with a critical opportunity to connect with their patients.

Faced with this fact, do clinicians accept responsibility or deflect it? Do they show human understanding or bureaucratic rigidity? Do they recover service, or leave their patients angry, disenchanted, dissatisfied, or worse—fearful and anxious?

These critical moments can be the most important opportunities in a patient’s relationship with a healthcare organization. If they’re handled with humility and grace, the patient can leave with a powerful, positive new impression.

An experience at Cedars-Sinai is an excellent example of this very topic. Alan Dubovsky is the Chief Patient Experience Officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.

He recalled a story from a time before he rose to that title, when he was a patient advocate. Back then, if something went wrong, he facilitated discussions between patients and their providers; and early on, he worked with a patient who felt deeply dissatisfied with the care they’d received.

“They went through the whole story, and the patient’s spouse said, ‘You guys just completely messed everything up. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I feel like we got bad clinical outcomes, bad patient experience.’”

No staff member at any hospital wants to hear a comment like that. Their first impulse might be to dispute it.

But Alan remembered how the physician involved took a different approach. “Before I could even say anything, the physician stepped in and said, ‘You’re absolutely right. That is not how I would have wanted to be treated at all. I feel like you’re owed an apology.’”

The physician’s candid, spontaneous apology impressed the patient and Alan.

“We’re good 99 percent of the time, but one percent of the time we make mistakes,” Alan said. “As long as patients feel like you own that and you’re trying to get better, that brings loyalty.”

Takeaway: Many patients can forgive mistakes—if you own them.

Many organizations, just like Cedars-Sinai have shared with us how their organizations seized the opportunity for service recovery and deepened the bond between patient and provider. Are you prepared to do the same?

How should you react to your mistakes?

That’s an instructive lesson for any provider dealing with things in the wake of an error.

One provider said it best. “What I saw was tenderness from the physician,” she said. “He was real. It wasn’t fake. He was really connecting with these people.”

Ultimately, how a clinician chooses to react to a mistake is a delicate, personal decision. But stories like this one, show that an authentic, meaningful apology—premised on a heartfelt understanding of the situation—can defuse a patient’s resentment, and move them toward forgiveness and trust.

Click here to see a video of Alan’s story.