The natural history of recovery for the healthcare provider "second victim" after adverse patient events

Qual Saf Health Care. 2009 Oct;18(5):325-30. doi: 10.1136/qshc.2009.032870.


Background: When patients experience unexpected events, some health professionals become "second victims". These care givers feel as though they have failed the patient, second guessing clinical skills, knowledge base and career choice. Although some information exists, a complete understanding of this phenomenon is essential to design and test supportive interventions that achieve a healthy recovery.

Methods: The purpose of this article is to report interview findings with 31 second victims. After institutional review board approval, second victim volunteers representing different professional groups were solicited for private, hour-long interviews. The semistructured interview covered demographics, participant recount of event, symptoms experienced and recommendations for improving institutional support. After interviews, transcripts were analyzed independently for themes, followed by group deliberation and reflective use with current victims.

Results: Participants experienced various symptoms that did not differ by sex or professional group. Our analysis identified six stages that delineate the natural history of the second victim phenomenon. These are (1) chaos and accident response, (2) intrusive reflections, (3) restoring personal integrity, (4) enduring the inquisition, (5) obtaining emotional first aid and (6) moving on. We defined the characteristics and typical questions second victims are desperate to have answered during these stages. Several reported that involvement in improvement work or patient safety advocacy helped them to once again enjoy their work.

Conclusions: We now believe the post-event trajectory is largely predictable. Institutional programs could be developed to successfully screen at-risk professionals immediately after an event, and appropriate support could be deployed to expedite recovery and mitigate adverse career outcomes.

MeSH terms

  • Anecdotes as Topic
  • Clinical Competence
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Medical Errors / psychology*
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*