Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How a real apology works

There's been a lot of good work done recently about how to disclose and apologize for medical errors in a manner that is respectful and empathetic and reflective of the lessons learned.  (See, for example, this article about the Seven Pillars developed at the University of Illinois in Chicago.)

Recently, the MIT admissions office mistakenly sent out an email with a line (incorrectly) telling students that they'd been admitted.  The explanation and apology offered in this blog post by Chris Peterson hit the mark beautifully, as indicated in the many comments received in response.

First the disclosure:

The footer to that email, as all emails before it, should have said this:

You are receiving this email because you applied to MIT and we sometimes have to tell you things about stuff. 
But what it actually said was this:

You are on this list because you are admitted to MIT! (/^▽^)/
Then the explanation:

Here's what happened:  [with full details not repeated here]

Here's the personalization, reflecting back on a clerical error made in the author's own college rejection, and the empathy:

Almost ten years later I know better. I know that the admissions officers at this school care. I know how complex a communications project at this scale can be. It's so easy to make a simple mistake. And yet it still hurts when I think about it. And it crushes - crushes - me to think that I might have unintentionally inflicted something similar on some of you.

And here's the conclusion, explaining that the problem has been solved, but offering to be in personal contact with anyone who was injured or confused:

So, that's what happened. I've fixed the footer in MailChimp. If you are an early admit, you have everything you need. If you are a current applicant - deferred EA, or current RA - you should expect your decision in March, precise date TBD. 

My guess is that overall a very small number of our current applicants even noticed this; I didn't even know until someone pointed me to the MITCC thread about it. But any number of people getting this kind of mixed signal is too many.  I've been on that side and I know how it feels. And if you've now felt it too, in part because of me, I'm so, so sorry.  If you want to talk, post below or send me an email.

Here are some responses from the students, showing understanding, humor, and, indeed, empathy in return:

Oh course, most of us understood that it was an honest mistake. We have that much understanding.

I had a mini heart attack when I saw the email, but it's ok; you and I are ok haha.  

What? You mean you can't just accept all of us to make us feel better? Aww :(

I didnt notice that until I read this blog. no big deal... Thanks for sharing your experience, Chris.

I can imagine how much disturbing that incidence with the envelope had been for you.


e-Patient Dave said...

EXEMPLARY! Great teaching! Off to Twitter & FB.

Farzana said...

I've spent a lot of time in the healthcare world thinking about how errors happen, how to prevent them, and what happens after they occur.

This young man's apology is as beautifully crafted as any good one I've seen - heartfelt and sincere and showing empathy. It's not easy to make a mistake, particularly one that gets picked up in the news and all kinds of chatter, but he handled it marvelously. Nicely done!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps in contrast to this: