Sorry Works!

Sorry Works! Blog

Making Disclosure A Reality For Healthcare Organizations 

Premature Apologies Hurt Families, Too

January 27, 2012Doug Wojcieszak, Founder Contact phone/e-mail address: 618-559-8168;


After one of my talks at a hospital in the Southern United States, a nursing manager rose to tell the story of a premature apology. A child had been born with numerous complications and would be lucky to see his second birthday. Nevertheless, according to the nursing manager, the hospital did everything they could medically and emotionally to support the little boy, his parents, and the family. Sadly, the child died. The day of the child's death, a staff member blurted out to the father, "If we had only done X, Y, and Z, this never would have happened. It's all our fault." That was six years ago, and the father had visited at least two dozen law firms, each telling him he has no case, there was no error, etc...but the father will never believe otherwise. The father is also constantly berating the hospital in public forums and through other means. He's a tortured soul....and the hospital and their staff are being tortured too.

This story is a tragedy on multiple levels, but a real lesson for all. As disclosure takes root, we are facing down the age-old notion of "If we say something to the family, we might get sued!" Lawyers, risk managers, and physicians are still so scared a premature apology might get the hospital sued. Well, as we wrote about in this forum last month, a premature apology is not enough for successful litigation. A nurse or doctor uttering something is not enough -- malpractice has to be proven. Sure, a statement might get a lawyer interested in a case, but, ultimately, a successful case cannot be based entirely on hearsay. However, constantly saying nothing post-event and looking guilty after every complication poses a much greater danger to hospitals seeking to avoid litigation. We need to communicate and stay connected post- event, and, hopefully, the sad story above should be another piece of reassuring evidence for those seemingly worried about premature apologies leading to litigation. Staff member says we screwed up, yet over two dozen law firms say "No thank you" to the case. What does that tell you?

I am actually more concerned about the impact of premature apology on patients and families. Once you start throwing around words like "error," "mistake," and "malpractice," the family or patient will never believe otherwise. Doesn't matter what their own lawyer tells them, or a judge or a jury tells them...none of it matters because "....that doctor said the other doctor screwed up. They killed mom!" Don't put your patients and families in such a prison. Folks given premature apologies literally go crazy...I know because I've talked to plenty of these folks on the phone over the years. Stop it!

I do, however, understand that sometimes nurses and physicians think they are doing us a favor by uttering, "Get the chart and a really good lawyer," but, more often times than not, no favor is really be done.

Communicate with us, but stay in the empathy zone post- event. Say you are sorry this happened, promise an investigation, address our immediate problems and concerns (food, lodging, phone calls, etc), and stay connected with us throughout the investigation process. Nothing more, however. Don't throw yourself or colleagues under the bus, because it's not fair to your side or my side.

This issue of premature apology is one of the big reasons I wrote and just released the new "Little Book of Empathy." Everything you need to teach your front-line staff about using empathy post-event without prematurely admitting fault, all in a tight little booklet that can be read in 15 minutes. Click here to order: https://secureserv


- Doug

Doug Wojcieszak, Founder Sorry Works! PO Box 531 Glen Carbon, IL 62034 618-559-8168 (direct dial)