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J Surg Res. 2012 Sep;177(1):37-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jss.2012.04.029. Epub 2012 May 4.

Deconstructing intraoperative communication failures.

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Center for Surgery & Public Health, Brigham & Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.



Communication failure is a common contributor to adverse events. We sought to characterize communication failures during complex operations.


We video recorded and transcribed six complex operations, representing 22 h of patient care. For each communication event, we determined the participants and the content discussed. Failures were classified into four types: audience (key individuals missing), purpose (issue nonresolution), content (insufficient/inaccurate information), and/or occasion (futile timing). We added a systems category to reflect communication occurring at the organizational level. The impact of each identified failure was described.


We observed communication failures in every case (mean 29, median 28, range 13-48), at a rate of one every 8 min. Cross-disciplinary exchanges resulted in failure nearly twice as often as intradisciplinary ones. Discussions about or mandated by hospital policy (20%), personnel (18%), or other patient care (17%) were most error prone. Audience and purpose each accounted for >40% of failures. A substantial proportion (26%) reflected flawed systems for communication, particularly those for disseminating policy (29% of system failures), coordinating personnel (27%), and conveying the procedure planned (27%) or the equipment needed (24%). In 81% of failures, inefficiency (extraneous discussion and/or work) resulted. Resource waste (19%) and work-arounds (13%) also were frequently seen.


During complex operations, communication failures occur frequently and lead to inefficiency. Prevention may be achieved by improving synchronous, cross-disciplinary communication. The rate of failure during discussions about/mandated by policy highlights the need for carefully designed standardized interventions. System-level support for asynchronous perioperative communication may streamline operating room coordination and preparation efforts.

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