Understanding the behaviour of newly qualified doctors in acute care contexts

Victoria R Tallentire, Samantha E Smith, Janet Skinner, Helen S Cameron
Medical Education 2011, 45 (10): 995-1005

CONTEXT: A particularly onerous aspect of the transition from medical student to practising doctor concerns the necessity to be able to rapidly identify acutely unwell patients and initiate appropriate resuscitation. These are skills in which many graduates feel poorly prepared and are considered by some to be best learned on the job. This constructivist study investigated the factors that influence the behaviour of junior doctors in this context and initiated the development of a framework that promotes understanding of this important area.

METHODS: Focus groups involving 36 clinicians with a variety of clinical experience were conducted and analysed using a qualitative, grounded theory approach. The complex relationships between emergent themes guided the development of a framework that was refined and validated by further interviews with participants.

RESULTS: Six main themes, grouped under three broad headings, emerged from the data: 'transferring knowledge into practice' and 'decision making and uncertainty' (cognitive challenges); 'acts and omissions' and 'identity and expectations' (roles and responsibilities), and, finally, 'the medical hierarchy' and 'performing under stress' (environmental factors). The framework presented within this paper illustrates the complex relationships between these factors.

CONCLUSIONS: Although the potential of metacognitive strategies to reduce medical error is acknowledged, the framework promotes looking beyond the individual to consider the contributions to patient safety of identity issues, role uncertainty and the hierarchical clinical environment. A more distributed approach to situation awareness may help junior doctors to better tolerate complexity and uncertainty. The efficacy of simulation as an educational strategy may be improved by finding ways to recreate the hierarchical and stressful environment in which junior doctors practise. Junior doctors should be aware of the impact of affect and emotion on behaviour, and clinical supervisors should strive to ensure that roles and responsibilities are explicitly discussed.

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