Saying sorry when things go wrong


For immediate release: Monday, 5 October 2015

A sincere apology when things go wrong can help prevent patient complaints from escalating, says UK-wide medical defence organisation MDDUS.

A report published last month revealed that an inadequate apology was the most common reason hospital complaints in England were referred to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, accounting for 34 per cent of all complaints investigated in 2014-15.

Receiving a complaint from a patient is the single most common reason doctors seek advice from MDDUS and accounts for around a fifth of all contacts received. Types of complaints include patients being unhappy with a delay in diagnosis or treatment, prescribing errors and poor communication.

According to MDDUS medical adviser Dr Greg Dollman, many of these complaints can be dealt with by way of an apology and an honest and direct explanation.

“Sorry might seem like the hardest word but there are times when a doctor should apologise to a patient,” says Dr Dollman. “Many doctors might be reluctant to apologise but saying sorry is not an admission of guilt or liability in any potential litigation and is not a sign of weakness. In fact, at times it is the right thing to do and a genuine apology may be all that a patient wants.

“It can be stressful for doctors receiving complaints about the care they provide but they should avoid acting defensively. An open and honest approach can help resolve complaints at the earliest possible stage.”

Professionalism requires doctors to be honest and responsible and act with integrity. “Doctors should show empathy and respond objectively after consideration of the patient’s point of view,” says Dr Dollman.

“Where doctors can identify any failings in their care of the patient, then a sincere expression of sorrow or regret should be offered at the earliest opportunity as well as an explanation as to what went wrong.

“Often just listening and understanding a patient’s concerns can defuse a situation. Even in a situation where the doctor does not believe a mistake has been made, it is still possible to adopt a conciliatory tone and express regret that the patient is dissatisfied.”

GMC’s Good Medical Practice states: “patients who complain about the care or treatment they have received have a right to expect a prompt, open, constructive and honest response including an explanation and, if appropriate, an apology.”

As part of the GMC’s guidance on Openness and honesty when things go wrong, patients can expect an apology to include what happened, what can be done to deal with any harm caused and what will be done to prevent someone else being harmed.


For further information contact Richard Hendry on 0845 270 2034 or 07976 272266, or email

Note to editors

MDDUS (The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland) is a medical and dental defence organisation providing access to professional indemnity and expert medico- and dento-legal advice for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals throughout the UK.

For further information on MDDUS go to



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