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Original article

Vol. 147 No. 1718 (2017)

What constitutes “competent error disclosure”? Insights from a national focus group study in Switzerland

  • Annegret F. Hannawa
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2017;147:w14427


The question is no longer whether to disclose an error to a patient. Many studies have established that medical errors are co-owned by providers and patients and thus must be disclosed. However, little evidence is available on the concrete communication skills and contextual features that contribute to patients’ perceptions of “competent disclosures” as a key predictor of objective disclosure outcomes. This study operationalises a communication science model to empirically characterise what messages, behaviours and contextual factors Swiss patients commonly consider “competent” during medical error disclosures, and what symptoms and behaviours they experience in response to competent and incompetent disclosures. For this purpose, ten focus groups were conducted at five hospitals across Switzerland. Sixty-three patients participated in the meetings. Qualitative analysis of the focus group transcripts revealed concrete patient expectations regarding provider’s motivations, knowledge and skills. The analysis also illuminated under what circumstances to disclose, what to disclose, how to disclose and the effects of competent and incompetent disclosures on patients’ symptoms and behaviours. Patients expected that providers enter a disclosure informed and with approach-oriented motivations. In line with previous research, they preferred a remorseful declaration of responsibility and apology, a clear and honest account, and a discussion of reparation and future forbearance. Patients expected providers to display attentiveness, composure, coordination, expressiveness and interpersonal adaptability as core communication skills. Furthermore, numerous functional, relational, chronological and environmental contextual considerations evolved as critical features of competent disclosures. While patients agreed on a number of preferences, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to competent disclosures. Thus, error disclosures do not lend themselves to a checklist approach. Instead, this study provides concrete evidence-based starting points for the development of a disclosure training that is grounded in a communication science model, aiming to support clinicians, institutions and patients with this challenging task.


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