I’m Kate Dewhirst.

I’m a lawyer who writes about legal issues affecting healthcare in Canada

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Do you know how to apologize?

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A note popped into my inbox this morning from Michael Hyatt, who is an extraordinary business coach.  The topic is “The anatomy of a true apology”.

I am working right now with a medical office on a privacy breach and notifying patients.  And we have had some heartfelt discussions about how to convey sincerity in the notification letters about the team’s apology.

As Privacy Officers, Risk Managers and Patient Relations Officers, you have the meetings and write the letters to patients to say sorry for the poor behaviour of others. It’s not quite the same as apologizing for your own mistakes – but there are take away messages to remember about how others receive bad news and what your patients want to hear when your organization has failed them.

I thought Michael’s tips on how to issue an apology were really helpful.  He has two blog posts on the subject:

Ten Difficult, But Really Important Words

How to Botch an Apology

To add a few of my own observations:

  1. Use your own words.  Lawyers can help you with an outline of a letter or a script for an apology meeting, but the best apologies are conveyed using your own words.
  2. Offer time and space. Once you have told a patient what happened, give them some time and space to absorb the information.  Offer to speak with them at a later date at their convenience to answer any questions.
  3. Keep it simple.  If you feel the need to provide the whole backstory, write it out and then edit the apology notes back to the basics. It can look like you are trying to confuse people if you provide too much information.

Issuing an apology is never easy.  But health care organizations that can provide a sincere apology often avoid escalation to third party complaints and litigation.


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