How to Say You’re Sorry

John E. Owens, Law Office of John E. Owens, St. Augustine, Florida

July / August 2013|Peer Reviewed

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How to Say You’re Sorry

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.

Related Article: Addressing the Angry Client: Empathize & Apologize

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).

Related Article: Communication Breakdown? Form a partnership, make a contract

An effective apology requires 3 key ingredients: empathy, honesty, and clear communication.

Empathize

  • Empathy for clients is vital in apologies and should indicate that you understand the client’s feelings in the situation.5 Empathy also shows your client the importance of your relationship with him or her.

Apologize

  • Apologies must be honest and straightforward. Withholding information about any mistakes or wrongdoing on your behalf can make the apology stiff and insincere. Any lack of candor will do nothing but add insult to the injury your client has already endured. Likewise, a proper apology will avoid an express admission of guilt or wrongdoing to the greatest extent possible by avoiding phrases such as it was all our fault.

Communicate

  • You should emphasize to your client that you investigated the situation and changed your policies and practices to help prevent any recurrence. Clients are often more interested in preventing similar situations with other clients than receiving any compensation.1

Before speaking with your client, talk to your team, insurance carrier, and attorney, especially when issues of responsibility, accountability, and potential liability are concerned. Your team members must be made part of the process and trained on how they can assist from the beginning of the process, whereas input from your insurance provider and attorney can minimize unintended liability.

Related Article: Apology or Admission of Culpability

When You Apologize:

  • Empathize with the client’s loss
  • Be honest, sincere, and straightforward
  • Construct your wording properly to minimize potential liability
  • Communicate with your insurance carrier and attorney.

An Ideal Apology

Download An Ideal Apology handout

Imagine the following: Mrs. Smith drops off her 5-year-old poodle, Bubbles, at 7 am for a scheduled spay that afternoon. The veterinary assistant places Bubbles in a kennel and continues with other duties. At 8:30 am, another assistant finds Bubbles with her right rear foot caught in the cage door and an obvious fracture of the tibia and fibula. How are you going to tell Mrs. Smith?

In part, that depends on whether you find that you, or your staff, could be at fault in any way.

If no fault on your behalf is indicated, the apology might be similar to this:

Mrs. Smith, I have some difficult news to share with you [warning]. I am deeply sorry that Bubbles broke her leg while under our care [apology and pause]. I feel terrible that this happened to Bubbles and can only imagine how hard this is for you to hear [empathy].

I am wondering if I can share with you what we are doing to address this situation [asking permission]? The most important thing to do is fix Bubbles’ fracture, as she is our greatest concern right now. Here is our care plan for Bubbles [sign post].

Next, I would like to talk to you about how we are investigating this accident [sign post]. We examined the kennel in which she was placed. As far as we can determine, there is no defect in the cage and our staff did nothing wrong [pause]. We have removed that kennel from use and have contacted the manufacturers and requested that they review their records to see if similar incidents have happened in the past and to see how we can prevent them in the future. What else do you think we need to do to address this [check]?

We will pay for the cost of repairing Bubbles’ leg and follow-up treatment associated with her injury [pause]. I will call you as soon as we get out of surgery with Bubbles to give you an update [contract for next steps], as I know you are going to be worried about her [empathy].

I am terribly sorry this happened to little Bubbles [apology]. She is so very sweet. What other questions do you have [final check]?

If, however, you find that you or your staff could have been at fault, your apology may look more like this:

Mrs. Smith, I have some difficult news to share with you [warning]. I am deeply sorry that Bubbles broke her leg while under our care [apology and pause]. I feel terrible that this happened to Bubbles and can only imagine how hard this is for you to hear [empathy].

I am wondering if I can share with you what we are doing to address this situation [asking permission]? The most important thing to do is fix Bubbles’ fracture, as she is our greatest concern right now. Here is our care plan for Bubbles [sign post].

Next, I would like to talk to you about how we are investigating this accident [sign post]. We have reviewed how Bubbles was treated and how she broke her leg [warning]. I would like to tell you what happened [sign post]. Unfortunately, the veterinary assistant who took care of Bubbles this morning either didn’t properly close the kennel door or failed to notice that the door was defective and Bubbles’ leg got caught [pause]. We have updated our kennel procedures to ensure that this never happens to another animal in our care [pause]. We have contacted the manufacturers and requested that they review their records to see if similar incidents have happened in the past and to see how we can prevent them in the future. The kennel will also be returned to the manufacturer to determine whether it is defective. How else do you think we can address this for you [check]?

We will pay for the cost of repairing Bubbles’ leg and follow-up treatment associated with her injury [pause]. I will call you as soon as we get out of surgery with Bubbles to give you an update [contract for next steps], as I know you are going to be worried about her [empathy].

I am terribly sorry this happened to little Bubbles [apology]. She is so very sweet. What other questions do you have [final check]?

Remember to consult with your team, insurance carrier, and attorney before apologizing to a client, especially when issues of responsibility, accountability, and potential liability are concerned.

References

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