Clinical Communication

Disclosure After Adverse Medical Outcomes: A Multidimensional Challenge



From The Communication in Healthcare Group, Seattle, WA.


  • Objective: To review established approaches to disclosure and resolution following adverse medical outcomes and highlight barriers that may hinder universal implementation of effective disclosure/resolution practices.
  • Methods: An overview of established approaches to disclosure and resolution of adverse medical outcomes is presented.
  • Results: Clinicians must be equipped to manage situations where adverse medical outcomes occur even though the care provided was reasonable, within the standard, as well as in situations where preventable problems in the care provided were likely the cause of patient harm. Established approaches that have proven useful for investigating, disclosing, and resolving situations, captured in the acronyms AIDR, ALEE, and TEAM, can assist clinicians in the disclosure and ultimate resolution of these 2 types of situations.
  • Conclusion: Health care organizations with a solid commitment and a reliable structure for ensuring adherence to full disclosure and fair resolution of adverse outcomes have demonstrated sustainable progress in ethically and effectively resolving situations where patients are harmed by medical care.

Keywords: safety; medical error; adverse outcomes; resolution; communication.

Much has been learned over the 20 years since the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report To Err Is Human1 was published. At the time it was published, the IOM report made it clear that only a minority of preventable patient harms were being acknowledged, investigated, and reported. In the face of adverse outcomes “dissemble, deny, and defend” was a common strategy of many clinicians, institutions, and liability carriers.2 The health care system appeared to place a priority on protecting itself from reputational and financial harm over the rights of injured patients to be given an accurate understanding of what had happened in their care and to pursue restitution, if appropriate.3-5

The emerging quality improvement movement was accompanied by calls for increased patient advocacy. This included the goal of greater transparency and more timely and equitable resolutions with patients who have been harmed by problems in care. Health care systems pressed for confidentiality protections in exchange for increased focus on quality improvement.6 Applying medical ethics of autonomy, no-maleficence, beneficence, and justice initially took a backseat, as risk management was given priority.7 Insurance carriers have no ethical obligation, and a clear disincentive, to assure that harmed patients are fully informed and offered restitution. Some self-insured health systems, however, began experimenting with more proactive and transparent approaches to disclosure and resolution. In contrast to the often-reported fear of a liability explosion, they reported reduced claims and suits, shorter time to resolution, and reduced overall financial cost,8-10 providing some evidence that perhaps greater openness could work after all.

But for providers and staff to allow transparency and candor to become the norm, institutions needed to create a more “just culture” for managing errors. Individual impairment or willful disregard of safe practice would need to be handled differently from the slips and lapses that more often contributed to preventable harm.11 For example, the nurse who was inadequately oriented to the equipment on an unfamiliar unit where she was asked to work a double shift due to a staffing shortage should not be held as accountable as an employee who knowingly violated agreed upon safe practices, even though patient harm resulted in each situation. It became clear that patient harm was usually the result of multiple factors involving individuals, communication, procedures, systems, and equipment. Blaming and disciplining individuals at the sharp end would not reliably reduce adverse outcomes.

Since the 1999 IOM report, we have developed general agreement on best practices for investigating, disclosing, and resolving situations where patients are harmed by medical care.12,13 This article reviews the perspectives and practices that appear necessary for effective disclosure and resolution after an adverse outcome and highlights barriers to reliably enacting them in practice.


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