Social Networks in Health Care Teams

Evidence from the United States

Published in: Journal of Health Organization and Management, 2016

Posted on RAND.org on September 20, 2016

by Lusine Poghosyan, Robert J. Lucero, Ashley R. Knutson, Mark W. Friedberg, Hermine Poghosyan

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Research Questions

  1. What types of social networks exist in health care teams, and what contributes to their formation?
  2. How do various forms and functions of networks affect team members, organizations, and patients?

Purpose

This review synthesized existing evidence regarding health care team networks, including their formation and association with outcomes in various health care settings.

Design/Methodology/Approach

Network Theory informed this review. A literature search was conducted in major databases for studies that used social network analysis methods to study health care teams in the United States between 2000–2014. Retrieved studies were reviewed against inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Findings

Overall, 25 studies were included in this review. Results demonstrated that health care team members form professional (e.g., consultation) and personal (e.g., friendship) networks. Network formation can be influenced by team member characteristics (i.e., demographics and professional affiliations) as well as by contextual factors (i.e., providers sharing patient populations and physical proximity to colleagues). These networks can affect team member practice such as adoption of a new medication. Network structures can also impact patient and organizational outcomes, including occurrence of adverse events and deficiencies in health care delivery.

Practical Implications

Administrators and policy makers can use knowledge of health care networks to leverage relational structures in teams and tailor interventions that facilitate information exchange, promote collaboration, increase diffusion of evidence-based practices, and potentially improve individual and team performance as well as patient care and outcomes.

Originality/Value

Most health services research studies have investigated health care team composition and functioning using traditional social science methodologies, which fail to capture relational structures within teams. Thus, this review is original in terms of focusing on dynamic relationships among team members.

Key Findings

  • The key actors or opinion leaders for each professional team are critical to team functioning, but their characteristics vary across practice settings and networks.
  • Networks were associated with professional affiliations (e.g., nurse, physician) and affected practice patterns of communication.
  • Personal networks, such friendship and socialization networks, were more dense than professional ones—and more influential on behavior, in some cases.
  • Communication among team members seemed to be better when they were in organizations with practices in close proximity and when team members' schedules were similar.

Recommendation

  • Managers should consider factors such as team member proximity, location of central team members, and linkages between team members when trying to design effective team structure.

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