If It's Human to Say You're Sorry… What's Up With Unapologetic Doctors?

Dog at Vet

Veterinarians are only human. Which is to say that we will fall on our faces on occasion. So it follows that we might feel compelled to act as other humans do when things go south… and say we’re sorry. But not every veterinarian does… nor does every physician, for that matter. So what’s up with the medical professions and the s word, you ask?

It’s a tough topic to tackle, for sure — especially since it’s a tricky thing to try to answer for every medical professional in every instance. Nonetheless, there are some commonalities of culture that might account for why this reticence of regret might be the case. So here goes my attempt to explain this phenomenon…

Fear of Lawsuits, Vanity Get in the Way

In human and animal medicine alike, conventional legal wisdom holds that to apologize is to admit culpability. In other words, we believe we risk legal action when we go beyond “I’m sorry for your loss” and venture into the realm of "I’m sorry for my 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 doctor types have a problem with admitting we were wrong in our clinical judgment, made a mistake in surgery, got in over our heads and didn’t recognize it soon enough, or… fill in the blank.

In other words, those of us raised to believe in our superior intellect and work ethic (the med student’s lifeline), who were trained to think in absolutes (where none exist) and cater to a public who considers us inhumanly skilled (godlike, even), sometimes get to thinking we’re as unimpeachable as our culture tells us we are. Which — seeing as it’s not exactly true — can become problematic when we inevitably fail to live up to such lofty expectations.

Human Medicine Sees the Light

Human medical providers, however, are becoming increasingly aware that a systematic approach toward acting like a caring human being, in a field in which humanity is the very point, somehow works to everyone’s advantage. Even lawyers are beginning to agree that it often helps to offer a profoundly heartfelt apology — sometimes even when it’s not strictly necessary.

In fact, according to a growing body of research and a recent shift in hospital culture in progressive places, the risk of legal action significantly declines when doctors say they’re sorry.

Why? Because to err is human, and to handle it with grace is… well, as close to divine as we get. And when we act with humanity and apologize like people should when they do imperfect things, is it any wonder we’re less likely to get taken to task for acting like jerks?


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