Disclosing errors to patients: perspectives of registered nurses

Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2009 Jan;35(1):5-12. doi: 10.1016/s1553-7250(09)35002-3.


Background: Disclosure of medical errors has been conceptualized as occurring primarily in the physician-patient dyad. Yet, health care is delivered by interprofessional teams, in which nurses share in the culpability for errors, and hence, in responsibility for disclosure. This study explored nurses' perspectives on disclosure of errors to patients and the organizational factors that influence disclosure.

Methods: Between October 2004 and December 2005, 11 focus groups were conducted with 96 registered nurses practicing in one of four health care organizations in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. Focus groups were analyzed using qualitative content analysis.

Findings: Nurses reported routinely independently disclosing nursing errors that did not involve serious harm, but felt the attending physician should lead disclosures when patient harm had occurred or when errors involved the team. Nurses usually were not involved in the error disclosure discussion among the team to plan for the disclosure or in the actual disclosure, leading to ethically compromising situations in nurses' communication with patients and families. Awareness of existing error disclosure policies was low. Nonetheless, these nurses felt that hospital policies that fostered a collaborative process would be helpful. Nurse managers played a key role in creating a culture of transparency and in being a resource for error disclosures.

Discussion: Nurses conceived of the disclosure process as a team event occurring in the context of a complex health care system rather than as a physician-patient conversation. Nurses felt excluded from these discussions, resulting in their use of ethically questionable communication strategies. The findings underscore the need for organizations to adopt a team disclosure process. Health care organizations that integrate the entire health care team into the disclosure process will likely improve the quality of error disclosure.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Medical Errors / ethics
  • Medical Errors / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Nurses*
  • Patient Rights
  • Truth Disclosure*
  • Washington