Nurse/physician communication through a sensemaking lens: shifting the paradigm to improve patient safety

Med Care. 2010 Nov;48(11):941-6. doi: 10.1097/MLR.0b013e3181eb31bd.


Physician-nurse communication has been identified as one of the main obstacles to progress in patient safety. Breakdowns in communication between physicians and nurses often result in errors, many of which are preventable. Recent research into nurse/physician communication has borrowed heavily from team literature, tending to study communication as one behavior in a larger cluster of behaviors. The multicluster approach to team research has not provided enough analysis of and attention to communication alone. Research into communication specifically is needed to understand its crucial role in teamwork and safety. A critique of the research literature on nurse/physician communication published since 1992 revealed 3 dominant themes: settings and context, consensus building, and conflict resolution. A fourth implicit theme, the temporal nature of communication, emerged as well. These themes were used to frame a discussion on sensemaking: an iterative process arising from dialogue when 2 or more people share their unique perspectives. As a theoretical model, sensemaking may offer an alternative lens through which to view the phenomenon of nurse/physician communication and advance our understanding of how nurse/physician communication can promote patient safety. Sensemaking may represent a paradigm shift with the potential to affect 2 spheres of influence: clinical practice and health care outcomes. Sensemaking may also hold promise as an intervention because through sensemaking consensus may be built and errors possibly prevented. Engaging in sensemaking may overcome communication barriers without realigning power bases, incorporate contextual influences without drawing attention away from communicators, and inform actions arising from communication.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Communication Barriers
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control*
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration*
  • Patient-Centered Care / organization & administration*
  • Physician-Nurse Relations*
  • Risk Management / organization & administration
  • Safety Management / organization & administration*
  • Total Quality Management / organization & administration
  • United States