Communication failure: basic components, contributing factors, and the call for structure

Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2007 Jan;33(1):34-47. doi: 10.1016/s1553-7250(07)33005-5.


Background: Communication is a taken-for-granted human activity that is recognized as important once it has failed. Communication failures are a major contributor to adverse events in health care.

Basic communication components and processes: The components and processes of communication converge in an intricate manner, creating opportunities for misunderstanding along the way. When a patient's safety is at risk, providers should speak up (that is, initiate a message) to draw attention to the situation before harm is caused. They should also clearly explain (encode) and understand (decode) each other's diagnosis and recommendations to ensure well coordinated delivery of care.

Individual, group, and organizational factors: Beyond basic dyadic communication exchanges, an intricate web of individual, group, and organizational factors--more specifically, cognitive workload, implicit assumptions, authority gradients, diffusion of responsibility, and transitions of care--complicate communication.

The call for structure: More structured and explicitly designed forms of communication have been recommended to reduce ambiguity, enhance clarity, and send an unequivocal signal, when needed, that a different action is required. Read-backs, Situation-Background-Assessment-Recommendation, critical assertions, briefings, and debriefings are seeing increasing use in health care. CODA: Although structured forms of communication have good potential to enhance clarity, they are not fail-safe. Providers need to be sensitive to unexpected consequences regarding their use.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Health Services Administration*
  • Humans
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care / methods*