Department of Medicine Publications

Tensions Influencing Operating Room Team Function: Does Institutional Context Make a Difference?

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Medical Education





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BACKGROUND: A recent study of operating room (OR) team communication in a large, urban hospital described recurrent tension catalysts and a preliminary theory of team members' interpretive processes. To determine to what extent these findings were transferable to other institutional contexts, we conducted a validation study in 2 small, academic hospitals in a mid-size city.

METHODS: Eight focus groups and 8 interviews were conducted with 6 general surgeons, 22 OR nurses, 5 anaesthesiologists and 10 trainees. Observations of 10 surgeons and their team members were conducted over 4 months. Data were analysed by applying thematic codes derived from previous research and engaging a grounded theory process to reveal additional, emergent themes.

RESULTS: Observed tension catalysts were consistent with those described previously. However, 'higher tension' events occurred in only 70% of procedures in the smaller institutional context, as compared with at least 1 such event in all procedures in the larger setting. Interpretive processes were similar in teams from large and small institutional contexts. Team members referenced professional roles to interpret discourse, and they displayed recurrent role disagreements. Role perception influenced the motivations individuals attributed to colleagues' discourse, which influenced interpretations and reactions.

CONCLUSIONS: Overall tension levels are lower in OR teams in smaller institutions; however, tension catalysts and interpretive processes appear similar to those in larger settings. Consistency in tension catalysts and interpretive processes across contexts allows us to begin to model theoretical principles of OR team communication, enabling the development of generic communication curricula applicable in a wide variety of institutional contexts.


Dr. Lorelei Lingard is currently a faculty member at The University of Western Ontario.

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