Barbara B. Brewer, clinical associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing, has been awarded a four-year, $1.3 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study the top reason for medical errors: communication issues.

Brewer and her team will advance the scientific application of social network analysis – the mapping and measurement of communications patterns – in 26 nursing units nationwide, including medical, surgical and step-down units, with the goal of improving patient safety and quality outcomes.


"The top reason for medical errors is communication issues," Brewer said. "Our highly experienced team was the first to use social network analysis to explore how nursing unit information-sharing networks relate to patient quality and safety outcomes. Metrics we analyze include the frequency, quality and hierarchy of communication, and their correlation to patient outcomes such as medication errors and falls."


Building on her previous research, Brewer's study, "Measuring Network Stability and Fit," will:

  • Compare nursing unit decision-making and information-sharing networks within and across shifts
  • Establish key metrics for measuring network stability over extended time periods
  •  Identify key metrics representing network stability and congruence (fit) with unit environmental features (e.g., unit type, physical layout, workgroup characteristics) 
  •  Determine network stability and congruence associated with patient safety and quality outcomes (e.g., medication errors, falls, pressure ulcers, urinary tract infections, self-care management, satisfaction with care)

"Through the results of this grant, we intend to provide hospital staff with tools to show where improvements in communications will have the most impact on maintaining or improving patient safety," Brewer said.


Other institutions involved in the research include Texas Woman's University and Carnegie Mellon University. The grant was awarded by the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

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