Malpractice: Should You Say 'I'm Sorry'?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW


September 04, 2013

In This Article

"But I Didn't Do Anything Wrong!"

Many respondents honestly believed they had done nothing wrong, so apologizing would be irrelevant. "I know that I delivered the best possible treatment, and the patient died anyway. Some outcomes are beyond our control."

Other respondents had no relationship with the patient. "The family cast the widest net possible. They even included hospital volunteers! My name was on the chart," one respondent reported.

There's no way to avoid this type of suit, except by leaving medicine, Dr. Roberts points out. After all, you can't control the actions of others. But you might be able to do some damage control.

"I managed to avoid being named in a suit," recounts Theodora Brownsend, MD, an ob/gyn based in Los Angeles. "A patient in advanced labor was admitted through the ER. It was a precipitous delivery, and by the time I reached the ER after receiving the page, a resident had already delivered the baby, who was born with shoulder dystocia. The mother wanted to sue me for my failure to be present at the birth. I empathized with her distress and explained the circumstances. She dropped the case."

Money, Malpractice, and Motives

What do patients want when they sue? Money, of course, said many Medscape survey respondents. "Malpractice suits are all about money!" one respondent exclaimed. Another added, "Greedy plaintiffs -- and their attorneys -- are willing to reach into anyone's pocket to line their own."

However, some say that money is only sometimes the predominant motive. Doug Wojciezsak, Founder and Director of Sorry Works! LLC, a company that teaches physicians and nurses how to disclose and apologize, disagrees. "Malpractice suits are about communication and relationships, not money. Believe me," he adds, "I've been there."

"My older brother died 15 years ago, and my family brought a malpractice suit. We got a settlement, but it wasn't money we were after. We wanted acknowledgment as to what could be remedied for future patients." If there had been an apology, Mr. Wojciezsak states, his family might not have sued.

Dr. Roberts concurs. "The number of truly frivolous lawsuits is small -- less than 5% -- and only a fraction of plaintiffs are predominantly after money. What they really want is to be validated and heard."

And some patients may be looking for revenge or "justice" on behalf of the injured patient. "It's about the need to officially 'punish' someone for a bad outcome," a Medscape respondent reflected.

"The punitive attitude is more likely to change if patients feel the physician has taken responsibility for his or her mistake, will never repeat it, and will try to rectify it if possible," says Mr. Wojciezsak.

"These are the patients who especially need a compassionate touch, acknowledgment, and understanding," Dr. Roberts concurs.


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