When Veterinarians Say 'I’m Sorry': Apology or Admission of Culpability?
I’ve tackled this touchy topic here before. It’s to do with how veterinarians handle the inevitable: messing up. Because we’re only human, and we will fall on our faces every once in a while. Which means we should apologize. But not everyone does.
Why not? Because in human and animal medicine alike, conventional legal wisdom holds that to apologize is to admit culpability. In other words, we open ourselves up to legal action when we say, "We’re sorry for our role in your loss."
But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not just about the possibility of a lawsuit. It’s also that many of us high-and-mighty, doctorly types have a problem with admitting we were wrong in our clinical judgment … or made a mistake in surgery … or got in over our heads and didn’t recognize it soon enough … or … fill in the blank.
Human medical providers, however, are becoming increasingly aware that a systematic approach towards acting like a human, in a field in which humanity is the very point, somehow works to everyone’s advantage. In other words, even lawyers are agreeing that sometimes it helps to offer a profoundly heartfelt apology — sometimes even when it’s not strictly necessary. The risk of legal action actually declines when doctors say they’re sorry.
Why? Because to err is human. To handle it well is … well, as close to divine as we humans get. And when people act like people and apologize like people should when they do human things, is it any wonder they’re less likely to get sued?
So back to the animals. I’ve never been sued. I’ve been threatened — albeit obliquely — once or twice. But I’ve never been seriously worried about the possibility of it happening. I mean, what could they take me for if they did? The price of their twelve-year-old dog who — for better or worse — looks for all the world like a liability on any given balance sheet? And why would they, anyway?
I’m lucky enough to still practice veterinary medicine in a world where a heartfelt apology for any mistakes I might make are generally well received. It’s a world in which when mistakes get made, and those who make them can ‘fess up, come clean, and offer their human face to help resolve a human problem.
Increasingly, however, veterinarians are feeling the pinch from those who would counsel them to keep tight-lipped in the face of potential legal adversity. "Careful of what you say," they advise. "Yours is the next profession to be taken to the mat in this crazy, litigious society of ours."
My take? With such legal fear-mongering afoot, is it any wonder veterinarians are starting to lose their humanity just when human medical providers are starting to reacquaint themselves with their own?
Dr. Patty Khuly
Pic of the day: "I Is You New Lawyer. Srsly." by me (and Tulip)