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Apologising for errors will cut patients' complaints

GPs will cut the risk of potential disciplinary action by patients if they apologise immediately after making a mistake, according to the National Patient Safety Agency and NHS Confederation.

The two organisations made the recommendation last week after releasing a joint document, Creating a Virtuous Circle, aimed at ridding the NHS of a culture of blaming individuals for errors.

'Patients are looking for the three As ­ acknowledge, apologise and action,' said Alastair Henderson, NHS Confederation policy manager.

'The quid pro quo with patients is they will learn to look for accountability rather than punishment. Once you get into disciplinary procedures that's when lawyers start to come in. This is about avoiding that process.'

Sue Osborn, joint chief executive of the National Patient Safety Agency, said GPs found it traumatic to admit to their errors and would need support to change the culture.

'GPs have a very intense relationship with their patients and have an even greater difficulty admitting to mistakes than other clinicians,' she said.

'We do realise that asking clinicians to admit to error is a very traumatic process and they need to have support.'

The agency is compiling a database of areas of high clinical risk where many adverse incidents have been reported and is to issue guidance for GPs on problem areas.

Medical defence bodies said GPs should always give an explanation if they made an error and apologise when it was appropriate to do so.

Dr Gerard Panting, communications and policy director at the Medical Protection Society, believed GPs should be 'straightforward and honest'. He said: 'This old chestnut about doctors being told not to make any admissions is complete and utter rubbish.

'The idea that stonewalling stops complaints is wrong. It can encourage them.'

Dr Karen Dalby, clinical risk manager at the Medical Defence Union and a former GP, said an apology was only necessary where it was appropriate. 'An explanation is always necessary ­ patients might not understand what has gone wrong, or in other cases they like to know that the doctor has learnt from the event,' she added.

GMC guidance states that doctors should offer an apology 'where appropriate' if a patient has suffered harm as a result of their actions.

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