Strengthening open disclosure after incidents in maternity care: a realist synthesis of international research evidence

Mary Adams*, Julie Hartley, Natalie Sanford, Alexander E.P. Heazell, Rick Iedema, Charlotte Bevan, Maria Booker, Maureen Treadwell, Jane Sandall

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Open Disclosure (OD) is open and timely communication about harmful events arising from health care with those affected. It is an entitlement of service-users and an aspect of their recovery, as well as an important dimension of service safety improvement. Recently, OD in maternity care in the English National Health Service has become a pressing public issue, with policymakers promoting multiple interventions to manage the financial and reputational costs of communication failures. There is limited research to understand how OD works and its effects in different contexts.

Realist literature screening, data extraction, and retroductive theorisation involving two advisory stakeholder groups. Data relevant to families, clinicians, and services were mapped to theorise the relationships between contexts, mechanisms, and outcomes. From these maps, key aspects for successful OD were identified.

After realist quality appraisal, 38 documents were included in the synthesis (22 academic, 2 training guidance, and 14 policy report). 135 explanatory accounts were identified from the included documents (with n = 41 relevant to families; n = 37 relevant to staff; and n = 37 relevant to services). These were theorised as five key mechanism sets: (a) meaningful acknowledgement of harm, (b) opportunity for family involvement in reviews and investigations, (c) possibilities for families and staff to make sense of what happened, (d) specialist skills and psychological safety of clinicians, and (e) families and staff knowing that improvements are happening. Three key contextual factors were identified: (a) the configuration of the incident (how and when identified and classified as more or less severe); (b) national or state drivers, such as polices, regulations, and schemes, designed to promote OD; and (c) the organisational context within which these these drivers are recieived and negotiated.

This is the first review to theorise how OD works, for whom, in what circumstances, and why. We identify and examine from the secondary data the five key mechanisms for successful OD and the three contextual factors that influence this. The next study stage will use interview and ethnographic data to test, deepen, or overturn our five hypothesised programme theories to explain what is required to strengthen OD in maternity services.
Original languageEnglish
Article number285
Pages (from-to)285
Number of pages1
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Mar 2023


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