A policy-based intervention for the reduction of communication breakdowns in inpatient surgical care: results from a Harvard surgical safety collaborative

Ann Surg. 2011 May;253(5):849-54. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0b013e3181f4dfc8.


Objective: To develop and evaluate an intervention to reduce breakdowns in communication during inpatient surgical care.

Background: Communication breakdowns are the second most common cause of avoidable surgical adverse events after technical errors.

Methods: In a pre- and postintervention study, a random selection of patients on the surgical services of 4 teaching hospitals were observed according to 3 measures: (1) resident-attending communication of critical patient events (eg, transfer into the intensive care unit, unplanned intubation, cardiac arrest); (2) resident-attending notification regarding routine weekend patient status; and (3) frequency of weekend patient visits by an attending. All departments then developed and adopted a set of policy and education initiatives designed to increase prompt and consistent resident-attending communication (especially in critical events) and to improve regular attending visits with surgical patients. Specific reinforcement of the policies included a pocket information card for residents, as well as periodic reminders. Repeat audits of the surgical services were then conducted.

Results: We reviewed information for 211 critical events and 1360 patients for the nature of resident and attending communication practices. After the intervention, the proportion of critical events not conveyed to an attending decreased from 33% (26/80) to 2% (1/47), and gaps in the frequency of attending notification of patient status on weekends were virtually eliminated (P < 0.0001); the proportion of weekend patients not visited by an attending for greater than 24 hours decreased by half (from 61% to 33%; P = 0.0002). Contact resulted in attending-led changes in patient management in one-third of cases.

Conclusions: An intervention to improve surgical communication practices at 4 teaching hospitals led to significant reductions in potentially harmful communication breakdowns during inpatient care; significant alterations in patient management were noted in one-third of cases in which there was an adherence to recommended communication practices.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Academic Medical Centers
  • Boston
  • Critical Care / organization & administration
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Inpatients / statistics & numerical data
  • Interdisciplinary Communication*
  • Internship and Residency / organization & administration*
  • Male
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / organization & administration*
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / standards
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration
  • Policy Making
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • Program Evaluation
  • Quality of Health Care
  • Safety Management / organization & administration*
  • Safety Management / standards
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / standards