The role of informal dimensions of safety in high-volume organisational routines: an ethnographic study of test results handling in UK general practice

Implement Sci. 2017 Apr 27;12(1):56. doi: 10.1186/s13012-017-0586-8.


Background: The handling of laboratory, imaging and other test results in UK general practice is a high-volume organisational routine that is both complex and high risk. Previous research in this area has focused on errors and harm, but a complementary approach is to better understand how safety is achieved in everyday practice. This paper ethnographically examines the role of informal dimensions of test results handling routines in the achievement of safety in UK general practice and how these findings can best be developed for wider application by policymakers and practitioners.

Methods: Non-participant observation was conducted of high-volume organisational routines across eight UK general practices with diverse organisational characteristics. Sixty-two semi-structured interviews were also conducted with the key practice staff alongside the analysis of relevant documents.

Results: While formal results handling routines were described similarly across the eight study practices, the everyday structure of how the routine should be enacted in practice was informally understood. Results handling safety took a range of local forms depending on how different aspects of safety were prioritised, with practices varying in terms of how they balanced thoroughness (i.e. ensuring the high-quality management of results by the most appropriate clinician) and efficiency (i.e. timely management of results) depending on a range of factors (e.g. practice history, team composition). Each approach adopted created its own potential risks, with demands for thoroughness reducing productivity and demands for efficiency reducing handling quality. Irrespective of the practice-level approach adopted, staff also regularly varied what they did for individual patients depending on the specific context (e.g. type of result, patient circumstances).

Conclusions: General practices variably prioritised a legitimate range of results handling safety processes and outcomes, each with differing strengths and trade-offs. Future safety improvement interventions should focus on how to maximise practice-level knowledge and understanding of the range of context-specific approaches available and the safeties and risks inherent in each within the context of wider complex system conditions and interactions. This in turn has the potential to inform new kinds of proactive, contextually appropriate approaches to intervention development and implementation focusing on the enhanced deliberation of the safety of existing high-volume routines.

Keywords: Ethnography; General practice; Organisational routines; Primary care; Qualitative; Safety; Test results handling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / standards*
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / statistics & numerical data
  • General Practice / standards*
  • General Practice / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Safety Management / standards*
  • Safety Management / statistics & numerical data
  • Specimen Handling / standards*
  • Specimen Handling / statistics & numerical data
  • United Kingdom