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Traditions of research into interruptions in healthcare: A conceptual review

McCurdie, T., Sanderson, P. & Aitken, L. M. (2017). Traditions of research into interruptions in healthcare: A conceptual review. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 66, pp. 23-36. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2016.11.005


Researchers from diverse theoretical backgrounds have studied workplace interruptions in healthcare, leading to a complex and conflicting body of literature. Understanding pre-existing viewpoints may advance the field more effectively than attempts to remove bias from investigations.

To identify research traditions that have motivated and guided interruptions research, and to note research questions posed, gaps in approach, and possible avenues for future research.

A critical review was conducted of research on interruptions in healthcare. Two researchers identified core research communities based on the community’s motivations, philosophical outlook, and methods. Among the characteristics used to categorise papers into research communities were the predominant motivation for studying interruptions, the research questions posed, and key contributions to the body of knowledge on interruptions in healthcare. In cases where a paper approached an equal number of characteristics from two traditions, it was placed in a blended research community.

A total of 141 papers were identified and categorised; all papers identified were published from 1994 onwards. Four principal research communities emerged: epidemiology, quality improvement, cognitive systems engineering (CSE), and applied cognitive psychology. Blends and areas of mutual influence between the research communities were identified that combine the benefits of individual traditions, but there was a notable lack of blends incorporating quality improvement initiatives. The question most commonly posed by researchers across multiple communities was: what is the impact of interruptions? Impact was measured as a function of task time or risk in the epidemiology tradition, situation awareness in the CSE tradition, or resumption lag (time to resume an interrupted task) in the applied cognitive psychology tradition. No single question about interruptions in healthcare was shared by all four of the core communities.

Much research on workplace interruptions in healthcare can be described in terms of fundamental values of four distinct research traditions and the communities that bring the values and methods: of those research traditions to their investigations. Blends between communities indicate that mutual influence has occurred as interruptions research has progressed. It is clear from this review that there is no single or privileged perspective to study interruptions. Instead, these findings suggest that researchers investigating interruptions in healthcare would benefit from being more aware of different perspectives from their own, especially when they consider workplace interventions to reduce interruptions.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2017, Elsevier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
Publisher Keywords: Applied cognitive psychology, Cognitive systems engineering, Conceptual review, Distractions, Epidemiology, Interruptions, Interventions, Metanarratives, Patient safety, Quality improvement
Subjects: R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Nursing
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