Measuring communication in the surgical ICU: better communication equals better care

J Am Coll Surg. 2010 Jan;210(1):17-22. doi: 10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2009.09.025. Epub 2009 Oct 28.


Background: The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations reports that communication breakdowns are responsible for 85% of sentinel events in hospitals. Patients in surgical ICUs are the most vulnerable to communication errors. Fellows and residents are an integral part of the surgical ICU team, but little is known about resident-fellow communication and its impact on surgical ICU patient outcomes. The objective of this study is to describe resident-fellow patient care communication patterns in the surgical ICU and correlate established communication patterns with short-term outcomes.

Study design: A prospective observational trial was conducted for 136 consecutive surgical ICU days. We evaluated resident-fellow communication of four cardiorespiratory events: hypotension, new arrhythmias, tachypnea, and desaturation. We prospectively defined three short-term outcomes: improved, not improved, and worse. An intervention was attempted to improve communication.

Results: Three hundred twelve events were collected (166 observational and 146 interventional). PGY3 residents covered approximately 60% of days in both phases. PGY3 residents were responsible for 73% of communication errors in the observational phase and 59% of communication errors in the interventional phase. Communication errors were more likely in the late shift (p < 0.0001). The late shift was responsible for 77% of all communication errors. Communication errors resulted in worse short-term outcomes for cardiorespiratory events (p < 0.0002). Effective communication was a significant predictor of improved short-term outcomes (p < 0.0003). The intervention decreased communication errors in the late shift by 10% (p < 0.052).

Conclusions: Communication errors occurred more frequently during the late shift. These communication errors were associated with worsened short-term outcomes. Improved communication in the surgical ICU is a fruitful target to improve clinical outcomes.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication Barriers
  • Communication*
  • Critical Care / organization & administration*
  • Information Dissemination
  • Interdisciplinary Communication
  • Internship and Residency / methods*
  • Organizational Culture
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Management / methods
  • United States