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Making Disclosure A Reality For Healthcare Organizations 

Question from Road: Family Doesn't Believe You?

MARCH 21, 2012 NEWSLETTERDoug Wojcieszak, Founder Contact phone/e-mail address: 618-559-8168;

QUESTION FROM ROAD: FAMILY DOESN'T BELIEVE YOU? I recently received this great question from the road which may describe some issues you are experiencing as you grow your organization's disclosure culture:

"Doug, I think our entire organization has learned how to say sorry, including our front-line staff....we are really focused on empathy post-event without prematurely admitting fault. We always tell patients and families we are sorry this happened and we will investigate --- but sometimes the patient/family doesn't believe us! They don't believe we will really investigate, or they think we know more than we are letting on, or they think we are just playing games with them. We don't want our staff to feel forced to draw premature conclusions to placate angry family members --- what do we do??"

Great and important question! This question partially speaks to the lingering cultural problems in med-mal. It's all about credibility, or lack thereof. I'm sorry, but all those years of deny & defend have led the general public to believe doctors, nurses, and hospitals cover up mistakes. It's true! How many times have we heard disclosure stories where the patient/family is told the hospital will investigate, the patient/family thinks the whitewash job is coming, but then they are really surprised and literally blown away when they receive the truth? This is also why I have told our readers time and again when conducting an investigation and that investigation is pointing to no mistake, no error, you better have independent reviewers confirming your findings so that when you report to the patient/family you are believable/credible, because, again, the public is culturally preconditioned to believe that hospitals & doctors cover up and lie post-event. It's all about credibilty!

I think this question also partially speaks to television. That's right...good ol' TV. The general public has seen one too many medical dramas (ER, Grey's Anatomy, etc) where complex cases are resolved in a 50-minute time frame and, oh yeah, they still have time for quick smooch with the nurse in the broom closet! Same goes with cops and robbers shows....they always close the case in 50 minutes, complete with "emergency music" blarring in the background. We know real life doesn't work that way - cases can take weeks or months to investigate - but the public usually doesn't understand this truism.

So, what do you do?

Don't get defensive, don't start saying things like "no" and "that's not happening," but, instead, focus on things you can do and shift the conversation post-event to this direction.

First, be empathetic! And being empathetic means more than saying sorry. It's also means body language and listening. Really listen, and show it!

Second, I've always told our audiences to be date/time specific by saying things like "We are investigating what happened, and we will report back to you tomorrow at 2pm." Now, you may have nothing new or definitive to report at 2pm tomorrow, but you can at least touch base, tell the patient/family what you have been doing, and see how they are doing and what additional help they might need...and finish that conversation by stating when you will meet again. This process of touching base and checking in begins to re-build credibility with the patient/family that is often lacking post-event. Going forward, we say to touch base at least once per week during the investigative process....stay in touch with the patient/family. Keep communication lines open. It's about credibility!

Finally, we really encourage you to focus on customer service elements in those initial post-event conversations. You and your staff probably will not have all the answers why the surgery did not work and Mom is in the ICU, but you can offer food, transporation, lodging, phone calls, and other customer service elements! These important gestures help shift the conversation to what you can do, and, again, re-build credibility with patients and families.

Need disclosure training? How about disclosure consulting to help with the formation of your disclosure policy and program? You've come to the right place! Call Sorry Works! today at 618-559- 8168 or e-mail us at


- Doug

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