Factors influencing physician responsiveness to nurse-initiated communication: a qualitative study

BMJ Qual Saf. 2021 Sep;30(9):747-754. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2020-011441. Epub 2020 Nov 9.


Background: How quickly physicians respond to communications from bedside nurses is important for the delivery of safe inpatient care. Delays in physician responsiveness can impede care or contribute to patient harm. Understanding contributory factors to physician responsiveness can provide insights to promote timely physician response, possibly improving communication to ensure safe patient care. The purpose of this study was to describe the factors contributing to physician responsiveness to text or numeric pages, telephone calls and face-to-face messages delivered by nurses on adult general care units.

Methods: Using a qualitative design, we collected data through observation, shadowing, interviews and focus groups of bedside registered nurses and physicians who worked in four hospitals in the Midwest USA. We analysed the data using inductive content analysis.

Results: A total of 155 physicians and nurses participated. Eighty-six nurses and 32 physicians participated in focus groups or individual interviews; we shadowed 37 physicians and nurses across all sites. Two major inter-related themes emerged, message and non-message related factors. Message-related factors included the medium nurses used to convey messages, physician preference for notification via one communication medium over another and the clarity of the message, all of which could cause confusion and thus a delayed response. Non-message related factors included trust and interpersonal relationships, and different perspectives between nurses and physicians on the same clinical issue that affected perceptions of urgency, and contributed to delays in responsiveness.

Conclusions: Physician responsiveness to communications from bedside nurses depends on a complex combination of factors related to the message itself and non-message related factors. How quickly physicians respond is a multifactorial phenomenon, and strategies to promote a timely response within the context of a given situation must be directed to both groups.

Keywords: communication; health services research; hospital medicine; information technology; patient safety.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communication*
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Patient Care
  • Physicians*
  • Qualitative Research