"Sorry" Isn't the Hardest Word

Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In other words, being an affable individual enables people to relax around you and listen to what you have to say. They are more inclined to forgive the fact that you are not perfect and can make mistakes. If you are cordial and communicative, most people will be even more understanding of typical human transgressions.

In medical school, I was told never to say "I'm sorry;" It was wrong to admit you made a mistake. The admission might be used against you. While that risk always exists, I find that saying "sorry" in the right context is appropriate and reasonable. I feel no compunctions against apologizing when appropriate, whether it is to apologize for the sting felt during injection of numbing medication or whether a complication has arisen after a procedure. As an interventional radiologist, I perform many procedures daily on people. They uniformly understand and appreciate my comments.

Where I see care-givers get into trouble, is when there is communication breakdown. When a patient is left wondering, for whatever reason, indignation quickly sets in. Many times, subsequently, I will see a new patient who will tell me they are "tired of doctors lying to" them. Without knowing what came before, it is challenging to address the patient's unmet need and try to "smooth things over" for the caregivers who came before me.

If patients and physicians attempt to communicate more clearly, more often, and say "sorry" when appropriate, perhaps these interactions will more frequently be positive experiences for patients.