Blog | Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sometimes, 'sorry' is all it takes

In my administrative role, I have the great pleasure of signing thank you letters to patients and family members who have acknowledged the great care they have received by one of our physicians or other caregivers. It is a nice way to tell the patient “We got your note” and to simultaneously recognize the provider by copying her or him. The best part is that I get to read the patients' letters, which are filled with gratitude, and remind me of the great privilege we have to make a positive difference in the lives of our patients.

Sadly, I also have to deal with the occasional patient complaint. Although these are clearly a lot less fun to address, they also point out the impact that we have on the lives of the patients and families that we serve.

I recently had a complaint referred to me that reminded me of another important lesson about dealing with patients. An attorney had called on behalf of a family member for whom we had failed to provide timely and compassionate care. As a result, the patient suffered unnecessary pain, heightened anxiety associated with a possible delay of a needed procedure, and the frustration of dealing with an unresponsive office. Not a pretty picture.

I called the attorney to get the details, and started the conversation by sincerely apologizing for the experience her loved one had had. I told her that I was also interested in the details, so that I could provide constructive feedback to the care team, and perhaps use her experience to improve care for future patients. I was a bit startled when she replied, “You know, all I really wanted was for someone to apologize. Thank you so much for calling.”

In retrospect, I don't think I should have been as surprised by her reaction as I was. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a malpractice attorney to figure out that most patients who have had a bad experience are not looking for compensation or “revenge.” They are looking for compassion and for validation. They want us to recognize that we treated them poorly, that we did not intend to do so, that we care about them, and that we will try to do better.

Sometimes “sorry” is all it takes.

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital. He then held a number of senior positions at Mount Sinai Medical Center prior to joining North Shore-LIJ. He is married with two daughters and enjoys cars, reading biographies and histories, and following his favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, when not practicing medicine. This post originally appeared at his blog, Ausculation.