Patients’ perceptions and experiences of living with a surgical wound healing by secondary intention: A qualitative study

Dorothy McCaughan, Laura Sheard, Nicky Cullum, Jo Dumville, Ian Chetter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Most surgical wounds heal by primary intention, that is to say, the edges of the wound are brought together with sutures, staples, adhesive glue or clips. However, some wounds may be left open to heal (if there is a risk of infection, or if there has been significant tissue loss), and are known as ‘surgical wounds healing by secondary intention’. They are estimated to comprise approximately 28% of all surgical wounds and are frequently complex to manage. However, they are under researched and little is known of their impact on patients’ lives. Objectives To explore patients’ views and experiences of living with a surgical wound healing by secondary intention. Design A qualitative, descriptive approach. Settings Participants were recruited from acute and community nursing services in two locations in the North of England characterised by high levels of deprivation and diverse populations. Participants Participants were aged 18 years or older and had at least one surgical wound healing by secondary intention, which was slow to heal. Purposeful sampling was used to include patients of different gender, age, wound duration and type of surgery (general, vascular and orthopaedic). Twenty people were interviewed between January and July 2012. Methods Semi-structured interviews were conducted, guided by use of a topic guide developed with input from patient advisors. Data were thematically analysed using steps integral to the ‘Framework’ approach to analysis, including familiarisation with data; development of a coding scheme; coding, charting and cross comparison of data; interpretation of identified themes. Findings Alarm, shock and disbelief were frequently expressed initial reactions, particularly to “unexpected” surgical wounds healing by secondary intention. Wound associated factors almost universally had a profound negative impact on daily life, physical and psychosocial functioning, and wellbeing. Feelings of frustration, powerlessness and guilt were common and debilitating. Patients’ hopes for healing were often unrealistic, posing challenges for the clinicians caring for them. Participants expressed dissatisfaction with a perceived lack of continuity and consistency of care in relation to wound management. Conclusions Surgical wounds healing by secondary intention can have a devastating effect on patients, both physical and psychosocial. Repercussions for patients’ family members can also be extremely detrimental, including financial pressures. Health care professionals involved in the care of patients with these wounds face multiple, complex challenges, compounded by the limited evidence base regarding cost-effectiveness of different treatment regimens for these types of wounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-38
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Nursing Studies
Early online date28 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Patient experience
  • Qualitative research
  • Secondary intention healing
  • Surgical wounds


Dive into the research topics of 'Patients’ perceptions and experiences of living with a surgical wound healing by secondary intention: A qualitative study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this