A case of error disclosure: a communication privacy management analysis

  • Sandra Petronio
    Department of Communication Studies, Indiana School of Liberal Arts and Indiana School of Medicine, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, IN; Charles Warren Fairbanks Centre for Medical Ethics, Indianapolis, IN, United States
  • Paul R. Helft
    Charles Warren Fairbanks Centre for Medical Ethics, Indianapolis, IN; Division of Hematology/Oncology, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN, United States
  • Jeffrey T. Child
    School of Communication Studies, Kent State University, OH, United States


To better understand the process of disclosing medical errors to patients, this research offers a case analysis using Petronios’s theoretical frame of Communication Privacy Management (CPM). Given the resistance clinicians often feel about error disclosure, insights into the way choices are made by the clinicians in telling patients about the mistake has the potential to address reasons for resistance. Applying the evidenced-based CPM theory, developed over the last 35 years and dedicated to studying disclosure phenomenon, to disclosing medical mistakes potentially has the ability to reshape thinking about the error disclosure process. Using a composite case representing a surgical mistake, analysis based on CPM theory is offered to gain insights into conversational routines and disclosure management choices of revealing a medical error. The results of this analysis show that an underlying assumption of health information ownership by the patient and family can be at odds with the way the clinician tends to control disclosure about the error. In addition, the case analysis illustrates that there are embedded patterns of disclosure that emerge out of conversations the clinician has with the patient and the patient’s family members. These patterns unfold privacy management decisions on the part of the clinician that impact how the patient is told about the error and the way that patients interpret the meaning of the disclosure. These findings suggest the need for a better understanding of how patients manage their private health information in relationship to their expectations for the way they see the clinician caring for or controlling their health information about errors.


disclosure, medical errors, communication privacy management theory, privacy boundaries

Full Text: