The role of informal dimensions of safety in high-volume organisational routines: an ethnographic study of test results handling in UK general practice

Suzanne Grant (Lead / Corresponding author), Katherine Checkland, Paul Bowie, Bruce Guthrie

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    13 Citations (Scopus)
    172 Downloads (Pure)


    Background: The handling of laboratory, imaging and other test results in UK general practice is a high-volume organisational routine that is both complex and high-risk. Previous research in this area has focused on errors and harm, but a complementary approach is to better understand how safety is achieved in everyday practice. This paper ethnographically examines the role of informal dimensions of test results handling routines in the achievement of safety in UK general practice and how these findings can best be developed for wider application by policymakers and practitioners.
    Methods: Non-participant observation was conducted of high-volume organisational routines across eight UK general practices with diverse organisational characteristics. 62 semi-structured interviews were also conducted with key practice staff alongside the analysis of relevant documents.
    Results: While formal results handling routines were described similarly across the eight study practices, the everyday structure of how the routine should be enacted in practice was informally understood. Results handling safety took a range of local forms depending on how different aspects of safety were prioritised, with practices varying in terms of how they balanced thoroughness (i.e. ensuring the high quality management of results by the most appropriate clinician) and efficiency (i.e. timely management of results) depending on a range of factors (e.g. practice history, team composition). Each approach adopted created its own potential risks, with demands for thoroughness reducing productivity and demands for efficiency reducing handling quality. Irrespective of the practice-level approach adopted, staff also regularly varied what they did for individual patients depending on the specific context (e.g. type of result, patient circumstances).
    Conclusions: General practices variably prioritised a legitimate range of results handling safety processes and outcomes, each with differing strengths and trade-offs. Future safety improvement interventions should focus on how to maximise practice-level knowledge and understanding of the range of context-specific approaches available and the safeties and risks inherent in each within the context of wider complex system conditions and interactions. This in turn has the potential to inform new kinds of proactive, contextually-appropriate approaches to intervention development and implementation focusing on the enhanced deliberation of the safety of existing high-volume routines.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number56
    Pages (from-to)1-12
    Number of pages12
    JournalImplementation Science
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2017


    • Ethnography
    • General practice
    • Organisational routines
    • Primary care
    • Qualitative
    • Safety
    • Test results handling

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Medicine(all)
    • Health Policy
    • Health Informatics
    • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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