Existing research on intra-hospital patient transitions focuses chiefly on handoffs, or exchanges of information, between clinicians. Less is known about patient transfers within hospitals, which include but extend beyond the exchange of information. Using participant observations and interviews at a 1,541-bed, academic, tertiary medical center, we explored the ways in which staff define and understand patient transfers between units. We conducted observations of staff (n = 16) working in four hospital departments and interviewed staff (n = 29) involved in transfers to general medicine floors from either the Emergency Department or the Medical Intensive Care Unit between February and September 2015. The collected data allowed us to understand transfers in the context of several hospital cultural microsystems. Decisions were made through the lens of the specific unit identity to which staff felt they belonged; staff actively strategized to manage workload; and empty beds were treated as a scarce commodity. Staff concepts informed the development of a taxonomy of intra-hospital transfers that includes five categories of activity: disposition, or determining the right floor and bed for the patient; notification to sending and receiving staff of patient assignment, departure and arrival; preparation to send and receive the patient; communication between sending and receiving units; and coordination to ensure that transfer components occur in a timely and seamless manner. This taxonomy widens the study of intra-hospital patient transfers from a communication activity to a complex cultural phenomenon with several categories of activity and views them as part of multidimensional hospital culture, as constructed and understood by staff.
Keywords: care transitions; ethnography; patient transfers; qualitative research; quality improvement.
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