I once heard the saying, “An apology is the superglue of life. It can mend almost anything.” I love this adage because it is so true. In spite of this, however, there is often real hesitation about apologizing in healthcare situations; some people fear that an apology is an admission of guilt and thus sets you up for legal fall-out. This can’t be further from the truth.
When patients and their families come to your organization, they are feeling scared and vulnerable. It is our responsibility to offer competent care that builds trust. When that trust is eroded for whatever reason, we should apologize with sincerity on behalf of the organization. In doing so, we acknowledge the patient’s disappointment and own the opportunity to make things right.
I was recently meeting with a group of managers who told me their biggest concern about service recovery is that their staff didn’t know what to say when a patient or family member expressed dissatisfaction. OK, help them learn the language; give examples, ask them to identify how they would feel in the situation (empathy), and teach them key phrases that they can use.
Teaching service recovery skills is no different than learning other social skills. It can feel awkward at first, but it’s important and must be mastered. It reminds me of the time in high school when one of my best friends lost her father. I told my dad that I just didn’t want to go to the funeral because it felt too awkward, and I didn’t know what to say. He reminded me that my friend really needed me, and it was my presence and attention that mattered most. He gave me some key phrases I could use but emphasized that just saying “I’m so sorry” would suffice when any other words failed me. He was right. Nothing more was needed. Those few words speak volumes.