Background The built environment in acute care settings is a new focus in patient safety research, with few studies focusing primarily on the design of ward environments and the location and choice of material objects such as light fittings and hand-washing basins.
Methods We report on an interventionist video-reflexive ethnographic (VRE) study that explored how clinicians used the built environment to achieve safe communication in an intensive care unit (ICU) in a metropolitan Sydney hospital. We conducted 40 semistructured interviews, 5 weeks of observation and four reflexive focus groups with a total of 87 participants (including medical, nursing, allied health and clerical staff).
Results We found that the accessibility of staff and patients in the open spaces of the ICU was both a safety feature and a safety risk, enabling safe communication flow, but also allowing potentially unsafe interruptions. Staff managed interruptions while allowing for a safe degree of accessibility by creating temporary protected spaces, using physical markers such as curtains, tape and signs as well as behavioural cues, movement and the development of policies restricting activities at certain areas. Furthermore, clinicians were able to use the VRE method to gain insight into their own practices and problems, and to develop meaningful solutions for other problematic spaces.
Conclusions ICU staff enable safe communication in their wards by creating temporary spaces that are both ‘connected’ and ‘protected’. The flexibility of these ‘soft’ strategies is especially well suited to the fast-paced clinical context of intensive care.
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