The invisible work of transfer centre nurses: A qualitative study of strategies to overcome communication challenges

J Adv Nurs. 2023 Jul;79(7):2539-2552. doi: 10.1111/jan.15603. Epub 2023 Feb 26.


Aims: To explore the role of transfer centre nurses and how they facilitate communication between referring and accepting providers during calls about interhospital transfers, including their strategies to overcome communication challenges.

Design: A qualitative interview study.

Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 transfer centre nurses at one tertiary medical centre from March to August 2019, asking participants to describe their work. We performed content analysis, applying codes based on the Relational Coordination Framework and generating emergent codes, then organized codes in higher-order concepts. We followed the COREQ checklist.

Results: Transfer centre nurses employed multiple strategies to mitigate communication challenges. When referring providers had misconceptions about the transfer centre nurse's role and the accepting hospital's processes, the nurses informed referring providers why sharing information with them was necessary. If providers expressed frustrations or lacked understanding about their counterpart's caseload, the nurses managed providers' emotions by letting them "vent," explaining the other provider's situational context and describing the hospital's capabilities. Some nurses also mediated conflict and sought to break the tension if providers debated about the best course of action. When providers struggled to share complete and accurate information, the nurses hunted down details and 'filled in the blanks'.

Conclusion: Transfer centre nurses perform invisible work throughout the lifespan of interhospital transfers. Nurses' expert knowledge of the transfer process and hospitals' capabilities can enhance provider communication. Meanwhile, providers' lack of knowledge of the nurse's role can impede respectful and efficient transfer conversations. Interventions to support and optimize the transfer centre nurses' critical work are needed.

Impact: This study describes how transfer centre nurses facilitate communication and overcome challenges during calls about interhospital transfers. An intervention that supports this critical work has the potential to benefit nurses, providers and patients by ensuring accurate and complete information exchange in an effective, efficient manner that respects all parties.

Patient or public contribution: This study was designed to capture the perspectives and experiences of transfer centre nurses themselves through interviews. Therefore, it was not conducted using input or suggestions from the public or the patient population served by the organization.

Keywords: communication; delivery of healthcare; general surgery; interprofessional relations; nurse's role; nurses; patient transfer; qualitative research.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Nurse's Role
  • Nurses*
  • Qualitative Research