Veterinary medical errors: Tell the truth, do it quickly

Veterinary medical errors: Tell the truth, do it quickly

Saying you're sorry may go against everything you've been taught, but being honest is the best option
Sep 01, 2011

Apologize the right way

When I'm dealing with serious injury or a life-threatening disease, I spend time discussing with clients potential complications, after care and prognosis. They're willing to accept unwanted outcomes if you warn them ahead of time. When we make a medical mistake, we need to be truthful and communicate our regret to the client.

These are difficult conversations. Saying you're sorry opens you up to serious consequences. And saying, "I'm sorry," is hard because of what we're taught during our training. Apologizing does not come naturally to medical professionals.

Most lawyers and insurers will tell you to never admit that you made a mistake, although the AVMA-PLIT supports full disclosure with an appropriate apology. The group's stance is to tell the whole truth, and tell it quickly.

It's likely that the information will come out through other channels, and it's less harmful coming from the clinician. The data indicates that the likelihood of a lawsuit falls by 50 percent when healthcare professionals offer the client an apology and the details of a medical error immediately.

It's time to pull the covers back on medical mistakes and take a fresh look at an apology—why it's important, how to recognize when it's needed, and how to deliver it.

This must be an authentic apology, one that is heartfelt and offered because it's the right thing to do. The golden rule should always apply here: How would you want to be treated in the same situation?

Healthcare providers with the best communication skills are those least apt to be sued. Most problems in medicine that involve our clients result from poor communication. As we become busier and spend less time with our clients, the communication gap widens. As a veterinarian, you don't always have to be the communicator, but you must be sure that your entire team is delivering the same consistent message.