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Physicians’ and nurses’ work time allocation and workflow interruptions in emergency departments: a comparative time-motion study across two countries


Background Globally, emergency department (ED) work is fast-paced and subject to interruptions, placing high coordination and communication demands on staff. Our study aimed to compare ED staffs’ work time allocation and interruption rates across professional roles and two national settings.

Methods We conducted a time-motion study with standardised expert observations of ED physicians and nurses in Germany and the USA. Observers coded ED staffs’ activities and workflow interruptions. General and generalised linear models were used to examine differences in activities and interruption rates between countries and ED professions.

Results 28 observations were conducted in the USA and 30 in Germany. Overall, the largest portion of time spent by ED staff in both settings was in documentation (22.0%). Physicians spent more time in verbal interaction with patients (9.9% vs 5.2% in nurses; p=0.006), in documentation (29.4% vs 15.6%; p<0.001) and other professional activities (13.0% vs 4.8%; p=0.002). Nurses allocated significantly more time to therapeutic (22.3% vs 6.0% in physicians; p<0.001) and organisational activities (20.4% vs 9.5%; p<0.001). Overall mean interruption rate per hour was 10.16 (US ED: 8.15, German ED: 12.04; p<0.001). American physicians and German nurses were most often disrupted by colleagues of the same profession (country: B=-.27, p=0.027; profession: B=0.35, p=0.006). German ED staff were interrupted more often by patients (B=-.78, p=0.001) and other sources (B=-.76, p<0.001) than American ED staff.

Discussion Our findings corroborate that professional roles largely determine time allocation to specific activities. However, interruption rates indicate differences between countries, suggesting the need for context-specific solutions to work stressors.

  • emergency department
  • work activities
  • interruptions
  • cross-national research
  • work observations

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