Skip to Content
SBMI Horizontal Logo

Understanding Interruptions in Healthcare: Developing a Model

Author: Juliana J. Brixey, RN, MPH, MSN (2006)

Primary Advisor:  Jiajie Zhang, PhD

Committee Members: Todd R. Johnson, PhD; Craig W. Johnson, PhD; James P. Turley, PhD, RN; David J. Robinson, M.D.

PhD Thesis, The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston.

Interruption is a known human factor that contributes to errors and catastrophic events in healthcare as well as other high-risk industries. The landmark Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, To Err is Human, brought attention to the significance of preventable errors in medicine and suggested that interruptions could be a contributing factor. Previous studies of interruptions in healthcare did not offer a conceptual model by which to study interruptions. As a result of the serious consequences of interruptions investigated in other high-risk industries, there is a need to develop a model to describe, understand, explain, and predict interruptions and their consequences in healthcare. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to develop a model grounded in the literature and to use the model to describe and explain interruptions in healthcare. Specifically, this model would be used to describe and explain interruptions occurring in a Level One Trauma Center. A trauma center was chosen because this environment is characterized as intense, unpredictable, and interrupt-driven. The first step in developing the model began with a review of the literature which revealed that the concept interruption did not have a consistent definition in either the healthcare or non-healthcare literature. Walker and Avant’s method of concept analysis was used to clarify and define the concept. The analysis led to the identification of five defining attributes which include (1) a human experience, (2) an intrusion of a secondary, unplanned, and unexpected task, (3) discontinuity, (4) externally or internally initiated, and (5) situated within a context. However, before an interruption could commence, five conditions known as antecedents must occur. For an interruption to take place (1) an intent to interrupt is formed by the initiator, (2) a physical signal must pass a threshold test of detection by the recipient, (3) the sensory system of the recipient is stimulated to respond to the initiator, (4) an interruption task is presented to recipient, and (5) the interruption task is either accepted or rejected by the recipient. An interruption was determined to be quantifiable by (1) the frequency of occurrence of an interruption, (2) the number of times the primary task has been suspended to perform an interrupting task, (3) the length of time the primary task has been suspended, and (4) the frequency of returning to the primary task or not returning to the primary task. As a result of the concept analysis, a definition of an interruption was derived from the literature. An interruption is defined as a break in the performance of a human activity initiated internal or external to the recipient and occurring within the context of a setting or location. This break results in the suspension of the initial task by initiating the performance of an unplanned task with the assumption that the initial task will be resumed. The definition is inclusive of all the defining attributes of an interruption. This is a standard definition that can be used by the healthcare industry. From the definition, a visual model of an interruption was developed. The model was used to describe and explain the interruptions recorded for an instrumental case study of physicians and registered nurses (RNs) working in a Level One Trauma Center. Five physicians were observed for a total of 29 hours, 31 minutes. Eight registered nurses were observed for a total of 40 hours 9 minutes. Observations were made on either the 0700–1500 or the 1500-2300 shift using the shadowing technique. Observations were recorded in the field note format. The field notes were analyzed by a hybrid method of categorizing activities and interruptions. The method was developed by using both a deductive a priori classification framework and by the inductive process utilizing line-byline coding and constant comparison as stated in Grounded Theory.