Research article

BMC Medical Ethics

, 14:50

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

How psychotherapists handle treatment errors – an ethical analysis

  • Irina MedauAffiliated withClinical Ethics/UPK, Psychiatric Hospitals of the University Basel, IBMB, University of Basel Email author 
  • , Ralf J JoxAffiliated withHistory and Theory of Medicine, Institute of Ethics, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich
  • , Stella Reiter-TheilAffiliated withClinical Ethics/UPK, Psychiatric Hospitals of the University Basel, IBMB, University of Basel



Dealing with errors in psychotherapy is challenging, both ethically and practically. There is almost no empirical research on this topic. We aimed (1) to explore psychotherapists’ self-reported ways of dealing with an error made by themselves or by colleagues, and (2) to reconstruct their reasoning according to the two principle-based ethical approaches that are dominant in the ethics discourse of psychotherapy, Beauchamp & Childress (B&C) and Lindsay et al. (L).


We conducted 30 semi-structured interviews with 30 psychotherapists (physicians and non-physicians) and analysed the transcripts using qualitative content analysis. Answers were deductively categorized according to the two principle-based ethical approaches.


Most psychotherapists reported that they preferred to an disclose error to the patient. They justified this by spontaneous intuitions and common values in psychotherapy, rarely using explicit ethical reasoning. The answers were attributed to the following categories with descending frequency: 1. Respect for patient autonomy (B&C; L), 2. Non-maleficence (B&C) and Responsibility (L), 3. Integrity (L), 4. Competence (L) and Beneficence (B&C).


Psychotherapists need specific ethical and communication training to complement and articulate their moral intuitions as a support when disclosing their errors to the patients. Principle-based ethical approaches seem to be useful for clarifying the reasons for disclosure. Further research should help to identify the most effective and acceptable ways of error disclosure in psychotherapy.