When the Crisis Is Medical

Thom Weidlich 04.13.23


We recently highlighted a new book’s steps for an effective apology. The book also includes an extended discussion of how doctors and hospital systems can apologize after a medical mishap. When things go wrong, these health-care providers typically fear an apology will do harm if they’re sued. The authors contend this fear is unfounded.

Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy run the SorryWatch website that chronicles public apologies. In their book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, they cite several studies that show apologizing lowers, rather than raises, the risk of medical-malpractice suits. The logic is that the absence of an apology infuriates patients. So they don’t merely ask, “Eh … what’s up doc?” They sue.

“Some malpractice lawyers contend that two-thirds of malpractice suits stem from a failure to take responsibility, apologize and communicate openly,” Ingall and McCarthy quote one study.

Medical Malpractice

Ingall and McCarthy argue that studies that show apologies increase lawsuits don’t distinguish between good and bad mea culpas. Bad ones don’t take responsibility. They also don’t explain what’s being done to prevent future mistakes. One study showed that 90 percent of medical-malpractice suits were filed because the patients wanted to prevent others from being subjected to botched procedures.

States have tried to address the problem with “medical apology laws.” In 39 states and the District of Columbia, apologies by doctors or hospitals can’t be used to show fault in litigation. But Ingall and McCarthy criticize these measures. That’s because many of them protect only statements of sympathy, not responsibility, which can be used against the medical professionals; a doctor or hospital would have to say, “I’m sorry this happened” rather than “I’m sorry I did this to you.”


When you apologize well, you’re likely to avoid having to go to court at all, forestalling stress for doctors and patients alike.

— Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies

The authors even argue that the laws may be harmful because they don’t allow doctors to fully explain why the mistake happened, which angers patients. A much better approach would be to allow a sincere apology, they say. Obviously, that could include compensation without litigation. “When you apologize well, you’re likely to avoid having to go to court at all, forestalling stress for doctors and patients alike,” they write.

Veterans Affairs

Ingall and McCarthy provide some anecdotal evidence of where this has worked. For example, after having experienced among the highest malpractice payments of veterans hospitals of its size, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1997 implemented a policy of disclosing errors and offering compensation. Its malpractice payments dropped to among the lowest 25 percent.

Doctors, like all humans, are reluctant to admit mistakes and apologize. Ingall and McCarthy make a case that it can be done without the horrors of being involved in a lawsuit.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe.

Related:New Book Lays Out Steps for an Effective Apology