Department of Medicine Publications

Team Communications in the Operating Room: Talk Patterns, Sites of Tension, and Implications for Novices

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Academic Medicine





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PURPOSE: Although the communication that occurs within health care teams is important to both team function and the socialization of novices, the nature of team communication and its educational influence are not well documented. This study explored the nature of communications among operating room (OR) team members from surgery, nursing, and anesthesia to identify common communicative patterns, sites of tension, and their impact on novices.

METHOD: Paired researchers observed 128 hours of OR interactions during 35 procedures from four surgical divisions at one teaching hospital. Brief, unstructured interviews were conducted following each observation. Field notes were independently read by each researcher and coded for emergent themes in the grounded theory tradition. Coding consensus was achieved via regular discussion. Findings were returned to insider "experts" for their assessment of authenticity and adequacy.

RESULTS: Patterns of communication were complex and socially motivated. Dominant themes were time, safety and sterility, resources, roles, and situation. Communicative tension arose regularly in relation to these themes. Each procedure had one to four "higher-tension" events, which often had a ripple effect, spreading tension to other participants and contexts. Surgical trainees responded to tension by withdrawing from the communication or mimicking the senior staff surgeon. Both responses had negative implications for their own team relations.

CONCLUSIONS: Team communications in the OR follow observable patterns and are influenced by recurrent themes that suggest sites of team tension. Tension in team communication affects novices, who respond with behaviors that may intensify rather than resolve interprofessional conflict.


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

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