Purpose: Adverse events are increasingly recognized as a source of harm to patients. When such harm occurs, problems arise in communicating the situation to patients and their families. We reviewed the literature on disclosure across individual and international boundaries, including patients', healthcare professionals' and other stakeholders' perspectives in order to ascertain how the needs of all groups could be better reconciled.
Data sources: A systematic review of the literature was carried out using the search terms 'patient safety', 'medical error', 'communication', 'clinicians', 'healthcare professionals' and 'disclosure'. All articles relating to either patients' or healthcare professionals' experiences or attitudes toward disclosure were included.
Results: Both patients and healthcare professionals support the disclosure of adverse events to patients and their families. Patients have specific requirements including frank and timely disclosure, an apology where appropriate and assurances about their future care. However, research suggests that there is a gap between ideal disclosure practice and reality. Although healthcare is delivered by multidisciplinary teams, much of the research that has been conducted has focused on physicians' experiences. Research indicates that other healthcare professionals also have a role to play in the disclosure process and this should be reflected in disclosure policies.
Conclusions: This comprehensive review, which takes account of the perspectives of the patient and members of the care team across multiple jurisdictions, suggests that disclosure practice can be improved by strengthening policy and supporting healthcare professionals in disclosing adverse events. Increased openness and honesty following adverse events can improve provider-patient relationships.