Unfinished nursing care, missed care, and implicitly rationed care: State of the science review

Int J Nurs Stud. 2015 Jun;52(6):1121-37. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2015.02.012. Epub 2015 Feb 23.


Objectives: The purposes of this review of unfinished care were to: (1) compare conceptual definitions and frameworks associated with unfinished care and related synonyms (i.e. missed care, implicitly rationed care; and care left undone); (2) compare and contrast approaches to instrumentation; (3) describe prevalence and patterns; (4) identify antecedents and outcomes; and (5) describe mitigating interventions.

Methods: A literature search in CINAHL and MEDLINE identified 1828 articles; 54 met inclusion criteria. Search terms included: implicit ration*, miss* care, ration* care, task* undone, and unfinish*care. Analysis was performed in three phases: initial screening and sorting, comprehensive review for data extraction (first author), and confirmatory review to validate groupings, major themes, and interpretations (second author).

Results: Reviewed literature included 42 quantitative reports; 7 qualitative reports; 1 mixed method report; and 4 scientific reviews. With one exception, quantitative studies involved observational cross-sectional survey designs. A total of 22 primary samples were identified; 5 involved systematic sampling. The response rate was >60% in over half of the samples. Unfinished care was measured with 14 self-report instruments. Most nursing personnel (55-98%) reported leaving at least 1 task undone. Estimates increased with survey length, recall period, scope of response referent, and scope of resource scarcity considered. Patterns of unfinished care were consistent with the subordination of teaching and emotional support activities to those related to physiologic needs and organizational audits. Predictors of unfinished care included perceived team interactions, adequacy of resources, safety climate, and nurse staffing. Unfinished care is a predictor of: decreased nurse-reported care quality, decreased patient satisfaction; increased adverse events; increased turnover; decreased job and occupational satisfaction; and increased intent to leave.

Discussion & conclusions: Unfinished care is a significant problem in acute care hospitals internationally. Prioritization strategies of nurses leave patients vulnerable to unmet educational, emotional, and psychological needs. Key limitations of the science include the threat of common method/source bias, a lack of transparency regarding the use of combined samples and secondary analysis, inconsistency in the reporting format for unfinished care prevalence, and a paucity of intervention studies.

Keywords: Care left undone; Decision making; Delivery of health care; Health care rationing; Health services; Medical errors; Missed care; Nursing process; Resource allocation; Workload.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Health Care Rationing*
  • Nursing Care*