When sorry isn't enough

Apologies which focus on the person being apologised to are likely to be more effective according to ECU research.

Forgetting an anniversary? Causing a car accident? How about accidentally slicing into someone’s bowel while performing surgery?

We all know how important it is to say sorry when we’ve done something wrong, but when is a simple apology not enough?

New research from Edith Cowan University has shown patients respond better to a more detailed apology that focuses on them in the event of an adverse medical event.

The study had 251 participants respond to videos of a surgeon apologising to them for a surgery gone wrong.

It found that people responded most positively when the person apologising focussed their apology on the person they were apologising to instead of themselves.

Professor Alfred Allan from ECU’s School of Psychology and Social Science led the research and explains that people’s inherent self-centredness means that apologies are likely to be focussed on what it meant for the apologiser.

“When we apologise we’re likely to focus on what it means for us,” he said. “For example the surgeon in this case might say ‘I’m really sorry about this, I wish it hadn’t happened’.”

“This research has shown that if we can empathise with the person we’re apologising to and explain that we understand what it means for them, then it’s likely to be a more effective apology.”

In the case of the surgeon apologising for an accident in surgery it might be something like: ‘I feel badly about the discomfort this has meant for you and the potential risks of the situation you were put in’.

Professor Allan said participants in the study found this apology more effective.

“People thought the doctor making the apology focussing on the patient was more sorry and sincere than the doctor who focussed on himself,” he said.

According to WA Department of Health figures there were 16,407 ‘clinical incidents’ at WA hospitals from 643,384 visits a rate of about 2.5 per cent1.

The incidents range from minimal or no harm to patients to serious injury or death but Professor Allan said people expected an apology even in the most minor cases.

“Our research showed that any apology was viewed more positively than negatively and even in the most minor cases patients would appreciate an apology,” he said.

Professor Allan said he hoped the research findings could be used to train medical practitioners how to better disclose, and apologise for adverse medical events.

The research was published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling and is available on its website.

1Patient Safety Surveillance Unit (2013), Your Safety in Our Hands in Hospital. An Integrated Approach to Patient Safety Surveillance in WA Hospitals, Health Services and the Community: 2013. Delivering Safer Care Series Report Number 2. Department of Health: Perth. Available at: http://www.safetyandquality.health.wa.gov.au/docs/clinical_risk_man/YOUR_SAFETY_2013.pdf