hHow would you react if you were involved in an incident that harmed a patient?

  1. Would you be concerned about the potential legal and disciplinary consequences?
  2. Would you worry about what your peers were thinking and saying?
  3. Would you feel disbelief and shock?
  4. Would you try to blame someone else in the team for what had happened?
  5. Would you feel unsure about what action to take next?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these five questions then you, like the majority of healthcare professionals, are susceptible to distancing and denial in the immediate aftermath of an incident. Now consider the following scenario:

How would expect the healthcare team treating your parents/child/self to behave if an incident occurred during their or your treatment?

  1. Would you want to know what could be done to repair the harm caused?
  2. Would you expect a sincere apology and an explanation?
  3. Would you want reassurance and support?
  4. Would you expect the healthcare team involved to investigate and learn lessons?
  5. Would you want reassurance that the healthcare organisation would prevent another family going through a similar experience?

The chances are you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of these questions.

And herein lies the complexity of offering sincere, honest apologies and explanations when things go wrong: One the one side, we have healthcare professionals who become so paralysed by shock, fear and disbelief after an incident that their initial reaction is distancing and denial. On the other, we have patients and carers who desperately need to understand what has gone wrong, why and what is going to happen next? And they need answers quickly because every day that passes, (quite understandably), increases their sense of frustration, trauma and mistrust.

Research on open disclosure, or being open1, as it is called in the UK, has shown that most patients, (quite rightly), expect an acknowledgement, a sincere apology, an explanation, support,  information on what can be done to rectify physical harm and reassurance that  the organisation involved will implement improvements to prevent another patient suffering the same trauma. Research has also identified a mismatch between patient expectations versus what doctors think patients want after medical errors occur.2,3


Human beings are prone to making assumptions. In healthcare, the assumptions we make made about giving apologies and explanations need to be challenged if we want to improve patients’ and carers’ experiences. Five assumptions that detract from providing empathetic and effective responses when things go wrong are:

The skills assumption: All too often it is assumed that senior healthcare professionals have the skills to offer empathetic apologies. This is a myth. Many patients recount experiences of insincere or bureaucratically-worded apologies that were devoid of humanity. In the words of GK Chesterton, “A stiff apology is a second insult… The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.”

The policy assumption: Healthcare organisations sometimes take false assurance that having a local policy on apologies and explanations means that patients and carers will be supported appropriately following an incident. Although having a policy is desirable and should be encouraged, it is not in itself a fail-safe barrier. How many healthcare organisations routinely collect patient and carer experience on whether they received an empathetic apology and explanation after an incident? My guess is that the answer is ‘very few.’ Yet this is the acid test of how well local policies are working and the foundation for future improvement.

The perspective-taking assumption: When things go wrong we assume that healthcare professionals will immediately see things from the patient’s perspective.  The sad reality is that distancing and denial kick in and render them unable to walk in the shoes of the patient.

The ‘I know what patients need to hear’ assumption:  Healthcare professionals also make assumptions about what patients and carers want in the aftermath of an incident.  These assumptions are often wrong. I remember debriefing one consultant who had been completely off-sided and humbled when a patient replied that the most important thing for her was reassurance that she could still be treated on the same ward where her medication incident occurred. The consultant had wrongly assumed she would want to be treated elsewhere. Her reply was a salutary lesson on the importance of not assuming we know what patients want.

The ‘we can plan for all eventualities’ assumption: Although it is important to know as much about the patient and carers, and about the nature of the incident as possible, you cannot plan how people will react to the information you provide. It is often difficult to anticipate how patients or carers will react to the information you share. Emotional reactions range from outbursts of anger, shock to calm acceptance or humaneness and forgiveness.

Many of the healthcare professionals I have mentored think they can plan for all eventualities, only to be taken by surprise by patient and carer reactions during a meeting. Pre-rehearsing a scripted apology will make you come across as a bureaucrat. It also closes off the patient or carer, making it difficult for them to ask the questions they most want answered.

To ensure patients and carers are better supported in the aftermath of an incident healthcare professionals need to be aware of their own human frailties. Be aware that distancing and denial are normal human reactions after an incident has occurred. And challenge the five assumptions that detract from our ability to offer patients and carers sincere apologies and honest explanations.



National Patient Safety Agency. (2009). Being open framework. Communicating patient safety incidents with patients, their families and carers. Available at: http://www.nrls.npsa.nhs.uk/resources/collections/being-open/?entryid45=83726

Gallagher TH, Waterman AD, Ebers AG, Fraser VJ, Levinson W. Patients’ and physicians’ attitudes regarding the disclosure of medical errors. JAMA. 2003: 26;289(8):1001-7.

Iedema R, Allen S, Britton K, Piper D, Baker A, Grbich C, Allan A, Jones L, Tuckett A, Williams A, Manias E, Gallagher TH. Patients’ and family members’ views on how clinicians enact and how they should enact incident disclosure: the “100 patient stories” qualitative study.BMJ. 2011:25;343:d4423.

© Copyright Dr Jane Carthey. 2013


2 responses to “Distancing, Denial and Assumptions: Saying sorry when things so wrong”

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    Hi, this is a comment.
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  2. annie-admin says:

    This is really excellent information

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