More than words: patients' views on apology and disclosure when things go wrong in cancer care

Patient Educ Couns. 2013 Mar;90(3):341-6. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2011.07.010. Epub 2011 Aug 6.


Objective: Guidelines on apology and disclosure after adverse events and errors have been in place for over 5 years. This study examines whether patients consider recommended responses to be appropriate and desirable, and whether clinicians' actions after adverse events are consistent with recommendations.

Methods: Patients who believed that something had gone wrong during their cancer care were identified. During in-depth interviews, patients described the event, clinicians' responses, and their reactions.

Results: 78 patients were interviewed. Patients' valued apology and expressions of remorse, empathy and caring, explanation, acknowledgement of responsibility, and efforts to prevent recurrences, but these key elements were often missing. For many patients, actions and evidence of clinician learning were most important.

Conclusion: Patients' reports of apology and disclosure when they believe something has gone wrong in their care suggest that clinicians' responses continue to fall short of expectations.

Practice implications: Clinicians preparing to talk with patients after an adverse event or medical error should be aware that patients expect their actions to be congruent with their words of apology and caring. Healthcare systems need to support clinicians throughout the disclosure process, and facilitate both system and individual learning to prevent recurrences.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Communication*
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Errors
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Care / adverse effects*
  • Patient Care / standards
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Truth Disclosure*