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William Sellar makes it easier for us to say sorry

BMJ Career Focus 2007;335:95-96 15 September 2007

Doctors are often thought of as being incapable of apologising. On occasions when we are conscious of the need to apologise, we may feel embarrassed out of fear of losing face or worry that admitting to a mistake may lead to recrimination.

Relationships with patients are built on trust. An error, misjudgment, or inappropriate comment can damage relationships. An apology may be appropriate to repair that damage. This also applies when we upset our colleagues or families. A timely apology to a patient may prevent hurt escalating into a complaint or damaging a caring relationship.

An apology to a colleague or family member may avoid loss of respect, a soured relationship, or the break-up of a friendship.

A recent example of a good apology was that placed in the press by Tesco. Having unwittingly sold contaminated petrol, which damaged some car engines, Tesco published a clear apology, admitting the error, expressing regret, explaining the problem, and promising to pay for repairs needed as a result of the contaminated petrol. If a major company recognises the need for and benefits of an apology, so should doctors as we too are providers in a service industry. The apology by Tesco illustrates several components of a good apology.

Components of a good apology:

  1. Expressing regret—I am sorry
  2. Accepting responsibility—I was wrong
  3. Making restitution—What can I do to make it right?
  4. Genuinely repenting—I’ll try not to do that again
  5. Requesting forgiveness—Will you please forgive me?

Some doctors believe that the less said after a mistake, the better. They fear an apology may be construed as an admission of guilt and fuel litigation. However, saying nothing can create the impression of not caring. A genuine apology can help patients understand we are human and make errors.

As Chapman and Thomas note, “It is about the provider showing respect, empathy, and a commitment to patient satisfaction; and about those receiving the apology having the grace to see the provider as human and fallible—and worthy of forgiveness.”

If you want to read the whole article WHY DOCTORS CAN’T SAY SORRY, JUST CLICK HERE.

To end with some advise from the master of the piano, Mr Elton John:
 

SORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORDS.

And he knew that already, thirty odd years ago guys, so please take note.

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