What it means to say 'sorry'

Natalie Wikeepa
Sign saying Sorry

Sometimes, things go wrong.

Doctors see it every day – a dire outcome to a simple procedure, a misdiagnosis or a delay in treatment. A good doctor who’s had a bad day.

A distressed patient may often just want an incident to be acknowledged. The way a doctor responds to their distress could be the tipping point as to whether or not they lodge a formal complaint which could lead to a stressful investigation by medical regulators.

While doctors may experience deep regret and compassion for their patient, often they are concerned that saying “sorry” might be seen as an admission of liability which could later be used against them.

There are a few things you should know about saying sorry:

1. Apologies and the law

The NSW Civil Liability Act 2002 protects a “full” apology made by any person, including those which acknowledge responsibility. This means that, in most circumstances, you can make a full apology for any harm you’ve caused. This won’t prejudice your legal position in any subsequent or related legal proceedings. That’s good news!

2. ‘Open disclosure’ is for everyone

When an adverse event occurs, Australian health care providers are required to openly disclose it to their patients. An apology may be part of that conversation. The principle is supported by the Medical Board of Australia’s Good medical practice guide: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia, which calls on medical practitioners to be open and honest in their communication with patients in the event of an adverse outcome.

To assist this process, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has released the Australian Open Disclosure Framework (the Framework). The Framework encourages greater openness about adverse events, providing resources and tips on ways to do it and how to prepare for these discussions.

3. Seek help

When something has gone wrong and a patient is upset, it’s natural for you to also be distressed and worried about the situation. It’s a good idea to contact your medical indemnity insurer as they will be familiar with open disclosure and are able to provide expert advice and resources to help you navigate the situation. Do so early in the process so you can benefit from their support and knowledge.

Natalie Wikeepa is a legal officer at the Medical Council of NSW.

Read more articles about good medical practice.

In most circumstances, you can make a full apology for any harm you've caused.