The rise of interdisciplinary teamwork in healthcare

Interdisciplinary teamwork is an approach that combines multiple disciplines working collaboratively with a common purpose to make decisions, set goals, and share responsibilities and resources.

Interdisciplinary teams differ from multidisciplinary teams, are important in healthcare today, and have elements that contribute to their success. Clinical care has become more complex, and medical staff are delivering complicated health services and having to learn new skills. Provider attitudes and patient expectations have moved toward more patient-centric models that can ensure high-quality patient care and the effective running of medical facilities.

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TED talk on healthcare teamwork

Joy Doll is a clinical associate professor at Creighton University, and her TED talk is about cultivating collaboration in healthcare.

Doll and her colleagues were asked to design a professional collaborative care model for a new clinic that was opening. They wanted the model to ensure that healthcare providers intentionally worked together to be on the same page with patients and families when delivering care.

It has not been the norm to be so collaborative in healthcare. Doll and her team had to create and innovate to find the best ways to deliver care. They identified four aims that could help improve healthcare:

  1. Address public health and improve chronic care provision.
  2. Improve the quality of patient care.
  3. Healthcare should be more cost-effective.
  4. More support is needed for clinicians as there are high rates of clinician burnout, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

All four aims were met in the first year of delivering collaborative care at the new clinic. There was a dramatic reduction in emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and fewer indicators of type two diabetes.

Doll believes that collaborative work in healthcare can be difficult. The business of healthcare is unique in how healthcare services are comprised, making it difficult to take one model and apply it elsewhere. Health professionals need to be educated on how to work together. There should be a culture where everyone teaches and everyone learns, from physicians to the front desk. This means the team is a democracy, and it is recognized that everyone brings value. This is important when cultivating collaboration. Positive intent should be assumed, instead of viewing people with different opinions or ideas as the opposition. There can be an acknowledgment that everyone is working for the betterment of the patient. By assuming everyone has that goal, working together can be more effective.

Self-assessment can help in understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses. Doll maintains it is better when there are different people at the table with different perspectives, and finished her talk by saying, “To change healthcare, we have to do it together.”

Interdisciplinary care plans

An interdisciplinary team in healthcare consists of professionals from numerous disciplines who collaborate to treat a patient with clinical needs. The team has more than just specialists who provide a patient with separate treatments. They complement one another’s proficiency and work together to achieve shared treatment goals. An example would be an interdisciplinary team in an emergency department comprising of a triage nurse, physician, charge nurse, nurses, nursing assistants, administrative staff, and allied health professionals such as radiographers, physiotherapists, and social workers.

To ensure the effective functioning of the team and positive patient outcomes, the roles of the team members in care planning and delivery must be defined and negotiated. This requires:

  • Trust and respect among team members
  • Optimal use of the skill mix within the team
  • Clinical governance structures agreed
  • Systems for communication and interaction agreed upon amongst team members

When developing a coordinated care plan, the interdisciplinary team might address the following points to improve healthcare:

  • The patient’s symptoms and needs
  • The staff who will address the patient’s needs
  • The interventions required for a good outcome
  • The goals of each intervention

In many healthcare facilities, interdisciplinary rounds are a vital part of patient care planning.

Interdisciplinary care plans are detailed plans of care developed by staff from several medical specialties or disciplines, each focusing on a patient’s condition, treatment goals, and methods for improving outcomes. The care planning process includes input from each provider, which must be considered against the risks and benefits to the patient.

More collaboration among healthcare providers, particularly between nurses and physicians, helps patients with interdisciplinary care plans by:

  • Shortening the length of stay, regardless of diagnosis
  • Decreasing the conditions acquired in hospitals
  • Reducing expenditure
  • Decreasing overall mortality

Disorganized team meetings can hinder a team’s ability to create a care plan that improves patient outcomes. Interdisciplinary care plans should be created during meetings held at the same time and place every day. Representatives from each discipline must attend to offer opinions and advice to other staff.

The effective implementation of interdisciplinary care plans needs a clear definition of each provider’s responsibilities, respect among the team, and clarity when providers share information about a particular patient. It can be useful to select a leader to assist in making multidisciplinary discussions productive. Leaders can create a system to care planning meetings by selecting goals for discussion, encouraging each team member to participate, and discovering more information about the patient when necessary. Defining the aims of interdisciplinary meetings, along with patient goals and intended outcomes, is vital for creating a plan of care that meets the patient’s needs while including feedback from the multidisciplinary team.

Interdisciplinary teams compared to multidisciplinary teams

Multidisciplinary teams do not use an integrated approach to treatment. They work alongside rather than in coalescence, each developing their own care plans. The plans are applied simultaneously, but each plan works independently. For example, a patient with a finger amputation could be treated by a neurosurgeon, a hand specialist, a prosthetist, and an occupational therapist. Each could have aims for the patient and provide treatment without consulting the others.

Reasons for having interdisciplinary healthcare teams

Some factors mean interdisciplinary teams are needed in healthcare, including:

  • An aging population: clinical advances mean that people are living longer. Consequently, there are more people with multiple health issues. These elderly patients often need the care of several specialists.
  • Healthcare specialization: there are more specialists in healthcare, each concentrating on a small area within their field. This means healthcare providers cannot address all the medical needs of patients. Interdisciplinary teams can help to connect these needs.
  • Medical knowledge: quality patient care now demands more learning and knowledge, which requires more specialization.
  • The increase in chronic diseases (diabetes, cancer, heart disease).

There has been a rise in patients with multiple health issues needing treatment from different healthcare providers, and interdisciplinary teams can give continuity and consistency to the healthcare delivered. Duplicate assessments can be prevented by integrating treatment and having more accurate patient records.

Advantages of interdisciplinary teams

Research indicates that interdisciplinary care plans benefit the patient and healthcare team members in planning care. There are advantages to interdisciplinary teams, such as improved care and outcomes. Healthcare professionals in different disciplines can give valuable insight into a patient’s condition. If an obstetrician, midwife, pediatrician, nurse, and anesthetist work together to treat a patient, they will all likely notice symptoms relating to their specialty. As individuals, they can treat one aspect of the patient’s condition. If they work together, they can provide comprehensive treatment that addresses the treatment and provides better quality healthcare.

Teamwork has been found to lessen the work-culture issues that lead to professional burnout. One reason is that health teams that include occupational therapists, social workers, and other specialty areas help break down the hierarchy of health organizations, giving more power to healthcare workers and producing a higher level of work and job satisfaction.

Medical errors can be dangerous and even fatal to a patient. These could be overlooked symptoms, wrong diagnoses, and incorrect drug combinations, which can be hazardous and even fatal. Errors can arise from a patient seeing multiple professionals, each with a treatment plan that might not take into account diagnoses and prescriptions from another doctor. Interdisciplinary collaboration can reduce errors by having a complete record that gives an overview of the patient’s condition.

An interdisciplinary approach can mean faster treatment with the team understanding and having access to all aspects of the treatment plan. For instance, if an orthopedist needs laboratory results before deciding on a diagnosis, the laboratory specialist can inform them when the results arrive. Reducing waiting time in this way can mean care is quicker.

Faster treatment and reduced errors can improve efficiency. Collaborative working can mean fewer tests and examinations. Surgeries take place sooner, as well as discharging patients from hospital. The hospital can admit more new patients, and shorter stays will reduce patient costs.

Interdisciplinary teams use collaboration, which helps recognize each member’s contribution. This can improve morale and make people feel more valued, boosting their desire to contribute. The patient can also be empowered when the team involves them in decision-making.

The successful interdisciplinary team

Successful interdisciplinary teams often have certain qualities that result in high-quality patient care. The patient’s needs are central to their work, and the patient and their family or carer are involved in decision-making and care. This helps meet the patient’s needs and means the patient feels listened to and valued.

The care plan should work toward a clear end goal. The goal could be to save the patient’s life or return them to a normal quality of life. Having an end goal can give the team purpose, have all members working in the same direction, and inform the treatment implemented.

Effective communication within the team should allow all members to share information. This highly structured, multidisciplinary process happens at the patient’s bedside or where representatives from the entire care team can meet. This type of care planning increases communication among healthcare staff, building a sense of collaboration and teamwork and clarifying the overall care that each patient needs.

It is important to remember that each team member has their own skills and treatment goals for each patient. In successful teams, each member’s contribution is acknowledged and respected, and team members will help and contribute to others’ work. There needs to be an understanding of how disciplines overlap and a recognition of what can be learned from other fields. An example is that physicians and nurses are both likely to know about physiological symptoms. The physician may be more specialized, but they know that nurses can treat the symptoms and recognize the contact nurses have with patients, which may give them greater insight.

The interdisciplinary approach can include shared leadership, with the role of the leader changing with the circumstances. Take a patient with a muscular injury, nerve pain, and a mental illness. The leadership role might change as the team goes from treating orthopedic to neurological to psychological symptoms. The team could recognize that the member with the most knowledge and experience in the current situation should lead the others.


Interdisciplinary teamwork in healthcare can have positive outcomes in efficiency, staff morale, sharing knowledge, and commitment to achieving end goals and delivering high-quality patient care. Collaborative working can reduce medical errors and mean fewer tests and examinations. With the challenges of modern life, such as an aging population, this kind of teamwork can provide a more fitting and robust service. With the rise in multiple health issues, disciplinary teams are in the best position to provide treatment. The benefits of having interdisciplinary teams are experienced by healthcare organizations, healthcare staff, patients, and families.

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