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Saying sorry for surgical errors: How often do doctors actually apologize?

Apologizing to someone for an error on your part that injured the other person is basic human decency.

Indeed, some psychologists believe that saying you’re sorry is important even if you weren’t at fault. It’s a way of expressing empathy and showing you care about what the other person is going through.

To be sure, relationships between doctors and patients are professional, not personal. But national guidelines still call for surgeons and their hospitals to tell patients about any errors that occur during surgery – and to express regret that these errors occurred.

How often do surgeons and health care facilities actually do that? In this post, we will discuss that question.

Culture of silence

Historically, doctors and hospitals have resisted admitting errors. In part, this is because they are reluctant to admit legal liability. But it is also because the medical system has operated under a culture of silence that discourages people who work in the system from calling out fault.

This reluctance to admit errors has made it difficult for the system to measure errors properly. And that in turn has made it difficult to change the procedures that tend to produce those errors.

National guidelines

In recent years, however, national guidelines have been developed for the disclosure of surgical errors. These guidelines call for telling the patient what happened with 24 hours of the error.

This duty to disclose is very important and marks a break with the past. But the responsibility of doctors and hospitals doesn’t end there. Surgeons and the facilities they work in are also supposed to apologize for the error and take any necessary steps to address problems that the patient suffered as a result of the error.

Survey results

How often do surgeons actually apologize for errors and follow the other guidelines for responding to the resulting injuries?

According to a recent research study, the percentage of surgeons who do this is barely over half.

The survey was done by researchers affiliated with the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System. It was published recently in a journal called JAMA Surgery.

The researchers found that 55 percent of the surgeons in the study reported that they apologized for errors or talked with the patient about whether the error could have been avoided.

In other words, only a little over half of the surgeons in the survey were in compliance with guidelines about the disclosure of errors.

Compared to not that long ago, however, the culture is changing. The code of silence surrounding the disclosure of errors appears to be breaking down – -and that’s a good thing for patients.

Your situation

If you or someone in your family suffered a surgical error, it makes sense to discuss your situation with an attorney who is knowledgeable about medical malpractice law.