Exploring patterns of error in acute care using framework analysis

Victoria R. Tallentire*, Samantha E. Smith, Janet Skinner, Helen S. Cameron

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Junior doctors are often the first responders to deteriorating patients in hospital. In the high-stakes and time-pressured context of acute care, the propensity for error is high. This study aimed to identify the main subject areas in which junior doctors' acute care errors occur, and cross-reference the errors with Reason's Generic Error Modelling System (GEMS). GEMS categorises errors according to the underlying cognitive processes, and thus provides insight into the causative factors. The overall aim of this study was to identify patterns in junior doctors' acute care errors in order to enhance understanding and guide the development of educational strategies. Methods: This observational study utilised simulated acute care scenarios involving junior doctors dealing with a range of emergencies. Scenarios and the subsequent debriefs were video-recorded. Framework analysis was used to categorise the errors according to eight inductively-developed key subject areas. Subsequently, a multi-dimensional analysis was performed which cross-referenced the key subject areas with an earlier categorisation of the same errors using GEMS. The numbers of errors in each category were used to identify patterns of error. Results: Eight key subject areas were identified; hospital systems, prioritisation, treatment, ethical principles, procedural skills, communication, situation awareness and infection control. There was a predominance of rule-based mistakes in relation to the key subject areas of hospital systems, prioritisation, treatment and ethical principles. In contrast, procedural skills, communication and situation awareness were more closely associated with skill-based slips and lapses. Knowledge-based mistakes were less frequent but occurred in relation to hospital systems and procedural skills. Conclusions: In order to improve the management of acutely unwell patients by junior doctors, medical educators must understand the causes of common errors. Adequate knowledge alone does not ensure prompt and appropriate management and referral. The teaching of acute care skills may be enhanced by encouraging medical educators to consider the range of potential error types, and their relationships to particular tasks and subjects. Rule-based mistakes may be amenable to simulation-based training, whereas skill-based slips and lapses may be reduced using strategies designed to raise awareness of the interplay between emotion, cognition and behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jan 2015


  • Acute care
  • Emergencies
  • Error
  • Framework analysis
  • Junior doctors


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