Apologies are, as comic strip For Better or Worse author Lynn Johnston says, “the superglue of life.” A well-crafted apology is capable of repairing almost any relationship, even one damaged by the injury or death of a pet. But before issuing apologies for professional mistakes, veterinarians should understand the pros and cons of such actions and know how to make an appropriate apology.
The advantages of apologies following malpractice incidents in human medicine are well documented and include significant reductions in the number of lawsuits and claims, damages awarded, and length of time required to resolve malpractice matters.1,2 Advantages also include increased patient satisfaction with the healthcare provider.1 These results are likely to apply equally to veterinarians.
To encourage apologies, 35 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation protecting the use of apologies as evidence in litigation against healthcare providers.3 Admittedly, few (if any) of these laws expressly apply to veterinarians; nonetheless, a court is likely to find that public policy arguments for allowing human healthcare providers to apologize for their mistakes should also apply to veterinarians, as such apologies following malpractice incidents provide veterinarians the opportunity to efficiently resolve the matter and repair the relationship with the client, just as such apologies do for their human healthcare peers.
Apologies can likewise have disadvantages. In federal court, and in states that lack healthcare provider apology laws, apologies can be used as evidence of misconduct in lawsuits4; even in states with apology laws, care must be taken when crafting apologies. Many healthcare provider apology laws do not provide complete protection from liability; rather, they make exceptions for any statement in the apology that implies, or could be interpreted as, admission of wrongdoing.2 A veterinarian wishing to apologize to a client should choose his or her words carefully (see An Ideal Apology, below).
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An effective apology requires 3 key ingredients: empathy, honesty, and clear communication.