Representing complexity well: a story about teamwork, with implications for how we teach collaboration

Med Educ. 2012 Sep;46(9):869-77. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04339.x.


Objectives: In order to be relevant and impactful, our research into health care teamwork needs to better reflect the complexity inherent to this area. This study explored the complexity of collaborative practice on a distributed transplant team. We employed the theoretical lenses of activity theory to better understand the nature of collaborative complexity and its implications for current approaches to interprofessional collaboration (IPC) and interprofessional education (IPE).

Methods: Over 4 months, two trained observers conducted 162 hours of observation, 30 field interviews and 17 formal interviews with 39 members of a solid organ transplant team in a Canadian teaching hospital. Participants included consultant medical and surgical staff and postgraduate trainees, the team nurse practitioner, social worker, dietician, pharmacist, physical therapist, bedside nurses, organ donor coordinators and organ recipient coordinators. Data collection and inductive analysis for emergent themes proceeded iteratively.

Results: Daily collaborative practice involves improvisation in the face of recurring challenges on a distributed team. This paper focuses on the theme of 'interservice' challenges, which represent instances in which the 'core' transplant team (those providing daily care for transplant patients) work to engage the expertise and resources of other services in the hospital, such as those of radiology and pathology departments. We examine a single story of the core team's collaboration with cardiology, anaesthesiology and radiology services to decide whether a patient is appropriate for transplantation and use this story to consider the team's strategies in the face of conflicting expectations and preferences among these services.

Conclusions: This story of collaboration in a distributed team calls into question two premises underpinning current models of IPC and IPE: the notion that stable professional roles exist, and the ideal of a unifying objective of 'caring for the patient'. We suggest important elaborations to these premises as they are used to conceptualise and teach IPC in order to better represent the intricacy of everyday collaborative work in health care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Canada
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Hospitals, Teaching / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations*
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration
  • Patient Care Team / standards*