Should physicians apologise to clients?

  1. Daniel Sokol, medical ethicist and lawyer

  1. London

A current choice of the doctor’s tribunal (the tribunal service for physicians in the UK) to suspend a junior physician for 2 months has actually resulted in prevalent issue in the medical neighborhood. The case includes Nithya Pandian, a medical professional who declares that she took a look at a client when the client rejects that an assessment occurred. 1 The tribunal needed to identify whether Pandian did, in truth, take a look at the client. After hearing statement from the client, the client’s hubby, and Pandian, the tribunal concluded that it was most likely than not that Pandian had actually not taken a look at the client, despite the fact that her medical notes recommend otherwise.

In a declaration produced in the course of an earlier examination by the NHS trust where Pandian worked, she had actually composed “ if Client A feels that I recorded this [the abdominal examination] without assessment then I seriously apologise for all the distress that Client A went through since of this

In the tribunal hearing, counsel for the General Medical Council argued, without success, that Pandian’s apology supplied proof that she had actually not taken a look at the client. The tribunal accepted Pandian’s description that a senior coworker had actually encouraged her to apologise and held that the apology was not an admission of regret. Yet the tribunal discovered the client’s in-depth account of the encounter with Pandian convincing and accepted that no assessment was carried out.

As news of Pandian’s suspension broke out, the medical Twittersphere appeared in outrage over the supposed bigotry of the choice (Pandian gotten her medical degree in India), the obvious unfairness of the tribunal’s finding that no assessment occurred, and the GMC’s dependence on the apology as proof of misbehavior. One physician tweeted “Possibly because of the MPTS and GMC findings we must stop apologising up until examinations are total.” Others regreted that apologies might now be thought about identical to an admission of regret and required medical defence unions to clarify if a modification in practice is required. 2,3

Although the tribunal accepted that Pandian’s apology was not a confession of misbehavior, this element of the case has plainly disconcerted physicians, restoring concerns about whether physicians must apologise at all, the timing of apologies, and their possible effect on examinations.

When something fails, it follows the ethical concept of medical beneficence (doing great for the client) and undoubtedly typical decency to state sorry. The apology must be recorded in the scientific record. From my own experience as a scientific carelessness lawyer, I am rather specific that an early significant apology, together with a description of what occurred and what will be done to prevent it taking place once again, would have stopped a minimum of some customers from prosecuting. I state “significant” since an ill evaluated, insincere apology can make matters worse.

From a regulative viewpoint, the General Medical Council mentions that physicians need to be “open and truthful with clients if things fail” which they must use an apology ( Good Medical Practice, paragraph 55). 2 A failure to apologise can for that reason lead to disciplinary action and might recommend an absence of insight on the part of the physician.

On 1 June 2023, Pulse reported that the GMC acknowledged its mistake in welcoming the tribunal to analyze Pandian’s apology as an admission of regret. 3 If appropriate, this is a welcome admission that must offer some peace of mind to the medical occupation.

In English law, a medical professional’s apology does not, of itself, always total up to an admission of carelessness however the phrasing is essential. 4 A note from the operating cosmetic surgeon to the client specifying “I’m so sorry for leaving a surgical instrument in your abdominal area throughout the operation” is convincing proof that an instrument remained in truth left in the abdominal area and thus of misbehavior on the part of the surgical group. This might be counted on in subsequent procedures. On the other hand, a note stating “I’m so sorry that you have actually suffered issues and the distress that these have actually triggered you” will be of minimal worth to legal representatives in developing breach of task. It will, on the contrary, show well on the clinician.

It is not a surprise that the joint assistance of the GMC and Nursing and Midwifery Council worries that, when apologising, “we do not anticipate you to take individual duty for something failing that was not your fault.” (paragraph 16) 5

NHS Resolution has actually produced a brief brochure entitled “Stating sorry,” which is well worth reading. It encourages utilizing expressions such as “I’m sorry X occurred,” “we’re genuinely sorry for the distress triggered,” or “I’m sorry, we have actually discovered that …” 6 Medical professionals must not decline to apologise for worry of unfavorable effects however they must believe thoroughly about the phrasing of the apology.

Pandian’s case does not change my view that, for clients and physicians, the advantages of a significant apology far surpass the damages. From an useful viewpoint, if in doubt about whether to apologise and how to do so, physicians must consult from the health center legal department or their medical defence organisation.


  • Contending interests: Daniel Sokol is the author of ‘Hard Options: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Medical Principles’ (Reserve Guild, 2018).

  • Provenance and peer evaluation: not commissioned, not peer evaluated.

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