The Art of Apologizing

Mistakes can happen in your pharmacy. When they do, an apology goes a long way in easing the situation.

After causing a patient an inconvenience or when a serious mistake happens, saying you’re sorry can help smooth over an error and prevent a lawsuit. Giving a heartfelt apology will leave you and your patient feeling better about the situation.

A bad apology, on the other hand, can be worse than no apology at all. If you rush an apology, it will feel insincere to your patient. And if you wait too long to apologize, one small mistake can get blown out of proportion and become a huge offense. You don’t want your pharmacy exposed to unnecessary liability.

However, no matter what, say you’re sorry. It might be difficult, especially if you don’t agree with their complaint. But remember that apologizing doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with their complaint or accepting blame for it. It’s just for the inconvenience your patient is dealing with. By doing this, you’re showing them that you listen and are going to try to resolve the situation.

Here are some tips you can use when making an apology that can benefit both your patients and your pharmacy.

Actively listen

When a patient comes to you with a complaint, listen actively. By doing so, you’ll be better able to understand what headspace they’re in and determine the best way to help them.

Once they’ve said their piece, agree that what they’ve experienced is frustrating and then validate their feelings. You may not feel that their complaint is legitimate, but what matters is they feel something is wrong.

Repeat what they’ve said to confirm you’re on the same page, and then assure them that you understand and are taking it seriously. There are times when just having their position validated will help appease an upset patient.

Cool off

It’s natural to want to respond immediately when you receive a complaint from a customer. However, the best idea is to take a break to collect yourself before addressing criticism. Allowing yourself to get some perspective for even a few minutes will help when you have an irate patient. Step back and take a few deep breaths before you jump into the complaint.

Have a plan

When an error occurs in your pharmacy, you need to have a plan in place. Writing up an outline for apologizing can get your thoughts together before a face-to-face interaction. It allows you and your employees to organize thoughts and put together professional responses before speaking with upset patients. This will keep everyone more focused and less flustered.


If there’s been a mistake with a patient’s medication, correct it and apologize as soon as possible. Help control the damage it may have caused by contacting the patient immediately. If you catch a mistake early enough, you will probably be able to fix it before they leave your pharmacy.

Explain the mistake thoroughly

If a patient received the wrong medication, explain what the medication does and how it might affect him or her. Do this even if the wrong medication will have little to no effect. Your patient will want to know, and this will put the entire mistake to rest without having multiple conversations.

Contact your patient’s doctor

Contact your patient’s doctor after a mistake has been made, especially if the two of you have a good relationship. As members of the patient’s healthcare team, work together to assess any damage and decide what needs to be done.

It’s also important for doctors to know about any medication mistakes so they have a complete and accurate medical history. Consider apologizing to the doctor, as well, to avoid jeopardizing the trust and relationship you currently have with each other.

When appropriate, compensate

A verbal apology is sometimes the most appropriate compensation for small inconveniences, such as a longer wait time. But for more serious mistakes, like filling the wrong prescription or forgetting to give a patient both prescriptions, it’s best to provide some kind of compensation.

Small gestures of compensation along with apologies can go a long way to calm a frustrated patient. Consider refunding the patient’s out-of-pocket cost for a prescription that was filled incorrectly, offer a percentage off a future front-end purchase, or offer them a gift card.

Ask for help

It can sometimes be hard to know which type of apology to make, or if an apology is needed. If you’re unsure, consult with your risk manager, insurance company, or state pharmacy association.

Avoid legal action with apologies

According to Sorry Works!, an advocacy group promoting medical professionals’ use of disclosure, empathy, and apologies, you can potentially deter lawsuits, litigation, and settlements by using their strategies. You can also reduce anger and make patients and their families less likely to pursue legal action.

Follow up

By making up for a bad experience, you can actually make a patient more loyal than they were before the incident because it shows how much you care about them.

Always follow up with patients after a complaint. Keep them loyal by apologizing and finding out if they’re still satisfied with the solution. While you may not be able to win back everyone with a complaint, don’t dismiss all of your patients who complain as lost causes.

Bonus Tips for Handling Complaints

Don’t take it personally

It’s easy to get offended by someone complaining about your pharmacy and the services you provide, especially if the patient is downright rude. However, don’t take it as a personal attack. The complaint, even if not delivered politely, could give you useful information to improve your business.

Try not to let your emotions get the best of you when handling a complaint. Otherwise, you could risk losing that patient’s business forever. And if they tell their friends and family in the community, it might damage your wider reputation.

Never challenge the patient

When a patient comes to you with a complaint that’s based on their own misperception or unreasonable expectation, it’s easy to want to push back. However, challenging an upset patient is one of the quickest ways to blow things out of proportion. Instead, accept your patient’s version of events while talking to them. If you question what they’re telling you, it’ll make the patient feel like you’re saying you don’t believe them. You can go back to your employee later to get their side of the story; but in the moment, assume the patient’s story is accurate.

Let experience be your teacher

Whether or not the complaint was justified, every dissatisfied customer provides an opportunity to learn and improve your processes. Document each complaint and what action was taken to remedy it. Having a concrete record will help you implement improvements.

While not every complaint will lead to a major change to your procedures, it’s important you don’t dismiss complaints without thinking about how to avoid them in the future.

More articles from the June 2024 issue:

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