How long do nursing staff take to measure and record patients' vital signs observations in hospital? A time-and-motion study

Int J Nurs Stud. 2021 Jun:118:103921. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2021.103921. Epub 2021 Mar 3.


Introduction: Monitoring vital signs in hospital is an important part of safe patient care. However, there are no robust estimates of the workload it generates for nursing staff. This makes it difficult to plan adequate staffing to ensure current monitoring protocols can be delivered.

Objective: To estimate the time taken to measure and record one set of patient's vital signs; and to identify factors associated with the time required to measure and record one set of patient's vital signs.

Methods: We undertook a time-and-motion study of 16 acute medical or surgical wards across four hospitals in England. Two trained observers followed a standard operating procedure to record the time taken to measure and record vital signs. We used mixed-effects models to estimate the mean time using whole vital signs rounds, which included equipment preparation, time spent taking vital signs at the bedside, vital signs documentation, and equipment storing. We tested whether our estimates were influenced by nurse, ward and hospital factors.

Results: After excluding non-vital signs related interruptions, dividing the length of a vital signs round by the number of vital signs assessments in that round yielded an estimated time per vital signs set of 5 min and 1 second (95% Confidence Interval (CI) = 4:39-5:24). If interruptions within the round were included, the estimated time was 6:26 (95% CI = 6:01-6:50). If only time taking each patient's vital signs at the bedside was considered, after excluding non-vital signs related interruptions, the estimated time was 3:45 (95% CI = 3:32-3:58). We found no substantial differences by hospital, ward or nurse characteristics, despite different systems for recording vital signs being used across the hospitals.

Discussion: The time taken to observe and record a patient's vital signs is considerable, so changes to recommended assessment frequency could have major workload implications. Variation in estimates derived from previous studies may, in part, arise from a lack of clarity about what was included in the reported times. We found no evidence that nurses save time when using electronic vital signs recording, or that the grade of staff measuring the vital signs influenced the time taken.

Conclusions: Measuring and recording vital signs is time consuming and the impact of interruptions and preparation away from the bedside is considerable. When considering the nursing workload around vital signs assessment, no assumption of relative efficiency should be made if different technologies or staff groups are deployed.

Keywords: Monitoring and surveillance; Nursing; Observation; Time-and-motion; Vital signs; Workload.

MeSH terms

  • England
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital*
  • Time and Motion Studies
  • Vital Signs