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How digital technology can improve communication in the operating room

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August 6, 2019

The operating room (OR) can often be a complex, high-stakes environment for even the most skilled surgeons. With the wide range of patient needs and circumstances, OR teams are often shuffled and reassembled quickly based on whoever is available. 

It’s no surprise that with the immense amount of pressure on an OR team, communication can be difficult, leading to miscommunications that can affect both team members and patients. A study at a Pennsylvania hospital found that distractions and interruptions in the OR were contributing factors to over 300 conflicts, one including a report of the wrong blood being transfused to the wrong patient. 

Another study reported that out of six complex operations, videotaping revealed communication failures in each case, at a rate of 1 every 8 minutes. In all, 88 percent of the failures affected flow or safety of the operation. A Washington Post article also recalls a time when one surgeon was so displeased by the instrument handed to her by a technician, she slammed the instrument down, breaking the technician’s finger.

How does the culture of an OR affect patient outcomes? What tools can we use to improve communication and teamwork in the OR? In this blog post, we took a look at how OR culture impacts communication and patient outcomes and how digital technology can help surgical teams take steps toward a more collaborative environment.

Operating room team cooperation

How OR culture and communication affect patient outcomes

The media often portrays OR teams working seamlessly to save the lives of patients. However, this portrait of a flawless team fails to take into account one of the biggest factors that plays into the success of a surgery: the human aspect. 

Interpersonal relationships and culture within an OR team can greatly impact patient outcomes in surgery. In an ethological observation study in an OR, there were three recorded incidents of conflict between surgeons and other team members with intensities that were labeled with “potential of being detrimental to team building as well as potentially threatening patient safety.” 

Another report found that 40 percent of medical mistakes were due to poor communication, generally stemming from fear of appearing as incompetent or believing colleagues were uninterested in communicating. Additionally, many hospitals state that hospital staff may be reluctant to report errors and near misses out of fear of retribution or job retention.

Failures in communication have been correlated with increased surgical errors and flow disruptions,” said Amy Halverson, MD, associate professor of surgery and chief of colorectal surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

There is little surprise that it may be difficult to perform best on patients in the OR with poor communication enveloping the teams and creating conflicts. However, with the help of new digital technologies, inefficiencies and frustrations can be quickly pinpointed to help OR teams work more effectively.

Operating room digital technology

What digital technology can do to improve the OR

Digital technology can be a useful resource for decreasing the number of conflicts in the OR. One of the great ways it can help is through the collection of data, including errors and conflicts within a procedure. By enabling methods to identify repeated areas of inefficiency and miscommunication in a surgical procedure, hospitals and medical device companies can begin developing preventative solutions for future procedures. Aggregated data can also provide analysis on errors in the OR to refine existing educational or training plans for physicians.

Another role of digital technology is to improve the culture of the OR is by providing a platform to better coordinate team member responsibilities. One study found that training as a team significantly reduced errors from 56 errors to 20 errors, demonstrating the power of working simultaneously rather than at the pace of just one team member. 

At ExplORer Surgical, we studied operating room processes carefully and built our OR software to address and minimize common communication errors during a procedure. Through our platform, quickly assembled OR teams can log surgeon preferences while following a step-by-step procedure simultaneously. 

Digital technology has also been shown to help with process improvement for patient handoffs, decreasing the rate of defective handoffs by 58 percent in one hospital after identifying root causes of communication failures. Digital technology can also greatly impact the amount of time saved and utilized for better optimization. Using digital technology in healthcare has also shown to decrease paperwork time by 60 percent, giving nurses the extra time to see two extra patients daily and increase 29 percent of patient face time. 

By incorporating digitized forms of procedure tracking into the OR, collaboration during a procedure is a much more seamless process, with the potential to reduce conflicts and threats to patient outcome.

Operating room team cooperation

Improving Surgical Outcomes Through Effective Communication

When it comes to the healthcare industry, it’s important to remember that improvements are always necessary for the benefit of the patients and the workforce. While efforts to improve communication and culture in the OR have certainly improved from the past, there are many opportunities to better utilize technology to refine OR processes and communication.

Through digital technology, operating rooms can continue working toward a more collaborative environment that ensures patient safety and greater cooperation. ExplORer Surgical is committed to changing the culture of the OR to be one of transparency and clear communication for the well-being of hospital staff members and the safety of patients.


This post was written by Sarah Han. Sarah is a content and digital marketing intern at ExplORer Surgical and a student at Northwestern University where she studies journalism, history and integrated marketing communications.

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