Dissertations & Theses (Open Access)

Graduation Date

Spring 5-4-2006

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

School Name

The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston

Advisory Committee

Jiajie Zhang, PhD


Developing a Model 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 v 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.

The following categories were identified as relative to this study:

  • Intended Recipient - the person to be interrupted Unintended Recipient - not the intended recipient of an interruption; i.e., receiving a phone call that was incorrectly dialed
  • Indirect Recipient – the incidental recipient of an interruption; i.e., talking with another, thereby suspending the original activity
  • Recipient Blocked – the intended recipient does not accept the interruption
  • Recipient Delayed – the intended recipient postpones an interruption
  • Self-interruption – a person, independent of another person, suspends one activity to perform another; i.e., while walking, stops abruptly and talks to another person
  • Distraction – briefly disengaging from a task
  • Organizational Design – the physical layout of the workspace that causes a disruption in workflow
  • Artifacts Not Available – supplies and equipment that are not available in the workspace causing a disruption in workflow
  • Initiator – a person who initiates an interruption
  • Interruption by Organizational Design and Artifacts

Not Available were identified as two new categories of interruption. These categories had not previously been cited in the literature. Analysis of the observations indicated that physicians were found to perform slightly fewer activities per hour when compared to RNs. This variance may be attributed to differing roles and responsibilities. Physicians were found to have more activities interrupted when compared to RNs. However, RNs experienced more interruptions per hour. Other people were determined to be the most commonly used medium through which to deliver an interruption. Additional mediums used to deliver an interruption vii included the telephone, pager, and one’s self. Both physicians and RNs were observed to resume an original interrupted activity more often than not. In most interruptions, both physicians and RNs performed only one or two interrupting activities before returning to the original interrupted activity.

In conclusion the model was found to explain all interruptions observed during the study. However, the model will require an even more comprehensive study in order to establish its predictive value.


Interruption; Activity; Method; Categorize, Healthcare;