Apologies made to patients who have experienced medical errors are composed of distinct and specific characteristics that substantially differ from apologies made in everyday life, according to a qualitative interview-based study published in PLoS One.

Study investigators performed a qualitative analysis using semistructured interviews with physicians from France who have made apologies to patients for medical errors. Based on the interviews, investigators noticed distinct themes and characteristics that appear to underlie all medical error apologies.

First, physicians believe consequences associated with apologies were “more severe in professional than in private life.” 

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Second, the most common explanations and types of communication provided during the apology included the following: discussing the contributing factors leading to the mistake, explaining the health consequences stemming from the error, describing actions to prevent future errors, and using words that demonstrated both regret and empathy.

In addition, the methods in which the apologies were verbally expressed and the concern for future physician-patient relationships were common factors in the apology process after medical errors.

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The number of physicians interviewed in this study was low, according to the researchers, and “their common professional background might mean they have a shared view.” 

In addition, the investigators believe a stronger analysis could have been performed if patients’ perceptions were also incorporated into the study.

According to the physicians’ responses, the investigators concluded that apologies made by physicians need to be clear, and that the form of words chosen determines whether or not “the apology is understood as a request to be excused and not simply an expression of regret.”


Dahan S, Ducard D, Caeymaex L. Apology in cases of medical error disclosure: Thoughts based on a preliminary study. PLoS One. 2017;12(7):e0181854.