Have no regrets about saying sorry


  Posted by: anna.lambert      6th October 2017

Comment from Angela Harkins, DDU dento-legal Adviser

Saying sorry is an instinctive courtesy in social situations and it’s a misnomer to think that dental professionals should have any concerns about apologising if something doesn’t go to plan during treatment.

In June 2017, legislation came into force in Scotland which provides reassurance for dental professionals when apologising to patients. The Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 makes it clear that an apology (outside of legal proceedings) is not an admission of liability. The legislation gives doctors and dentists in Scotland the same legal protection as their colleagues in England and Wales (under Section 2 of the Compensation Act 2006).   

Of course, saying sorry when appropriate is already an ethical duty for dental professionals throughout the UK. The GDC, along with other healthcare regulators, recognises a professional duty of candour when something goes wrong with patients’ treatment or care and which causes (or could cause) harm or distress. Under this duty, practitioners are required to tell the patient (or their representative) when something has gone wrong, apologise to the patient, offer an appropriate remedy or support to put matters right if possible and explain fully to the patient the short- and long-term effects of what has happened.1

If you make a mistake during treatment, it’s likely that an apology will do more good than harm to your professional relationship with the patient. While patients might understand what happened was an accident, they will certainly expect and appreciate an apology too.

On the other hand, if you don’t acknowledge the patient’s feelings or empathise with them, you risk being seen as aloof or defensive which might itself trigger a complaint. A sincere, timely apology may go some way to preventing a complaint, or it could lead to aiding an earlier resolution if concerns are raised.

Saying sorry might feel awkward but the communication skills required are not very different from those you need in any other patient interaction. The following tips should help:

• Start by explaining immediately what has happened. Once there is context, an apology can naturally flow. You don’t have to give a full explanation at this stage as further investigation may be necessary.

• Speak as you would in a natural conversation – in the first person. “I am very sorry that this has happened” sounds more sincere and less defensive than “the practice wishes to express regret…”.

• Think about your body language. Saying the right words, but towering over the patient with arms folded may not seem like an apology at all.

• Take your time and ensure you won’t be interrupted.

• Think of a meaningful apology as part of a process and be receptive to the patient’s wishes. If a patient does not want to know the details of what happened, respect their decision but make it clear they are welcome to this information should they change their mind and ensure they know who to contact if they have further questions.

• You may decide to make a goodwill gesture in the circumstances, such as a refund of treatment costs, but this should never be seen as a substitute for a proper apology.

• Document discussions with the patient, including your apology and (if applicable) their decision not to have further information.

• Finally, if you have any concerns about apologising, contact your dental defence organisation for specific advice. n


1 Being open and honest with patients when something goes wrong, GDC, July 2016

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