Don’t feel sorry for saying sorry

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Dr Michael Sultan believes dentists would be better off apologising when things go wrong

We have all been in that position, no matter what field of dentistry we work in. Sometimes something, usually the simplest of things, goes wrong. It might be a piece of broken file that you can’t remove, or an implant that’s been placed slightly incorrectly, or even a basic clerical error, it could be anything. Whatever it is, it’s always accompanied by that sinking feeling, when you realise that you’ve made a mistake.

In today’s litigious climate, admitting any mistake might feel like a big risk. Fitness to Practise is a near-constant threat at the moment, and – though we have been promised a reform of the current process – for many of us it seems no longer a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’ we will get tangled up in a hearing. In such a culture, surely openly admitting we have done something wrong is akin to serving ourselves up to the GDC on a platter. Isn’t it best to keep quiet?

But wait, wouldn’t this would be an injustice to our patients? Don’t they have a right to know if there has been an issue with their treatment? If we make a mistake that leaves the patient in pain, yes, we’ll feel guilty – but it’s the patient who goes home in pain, or hates the way they look, not us.

Fortunately, new research shows that saying sorry is actually good for us. It has often been believed that apologising undermines our authority, whether personal or professional. As dentists we like to be seen as infallible experts. If we tell our patients we’ve made a mistake isn’t part of our credibility is chipped away?

New research, based on several different papers, suggests that this is simply not the case – in fact, it seems as though saying sorry might have the opposite effect, increasing our self-esteem and making us feel more stable and in control. It will even help lift a great weight from our shoulders. Dentistry is a stressful enough job as it is without having to go to bed every night worrying over what we’ve done in the surgery and how it might affect us professionally, but if we own up to our mistakes, take them in hand and tell the patient honestly what has happened and how we will make it right, the burden will be lifted. We’ll get a good night’s sleep, at the very least.

And this is in line with what the GDC states about the duty of candour. Yes, the Fitness to Practise process is flawed – there are probably more things wrong with it than there are right – but it should not (and I don’t believe it really does) penalise professionals for making honest mistakes, as long as they admit them and take steps to rectify them.

The concern that many of us have is that if we say sorry, we’ll be left open to official castigation or even deregistration, but this should not be how we’re looking at the problem. Instead, we should always put the patient first, even before our own interests if need be, because they put their trust in us to make them feel better and they deserve to be treated with respect and honesty in return.

Dr Michael Sultan is the founder and principal of EndoCare, a noted specialist endodontic practice and highly regarded endodontic referral partner with dentists throughout the UK. His highly trained team use the latest technologies and techniques, and offer exceptional standards of care – always putting the patient and the interests of partner dentists first.