The role and contribution of nurses to patient flow management in acute hospitals: A systematic review of mixed methods studies

Shrawan Sharma*, Anne Marie Rafferty, Olga Boiko

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Increased overcrowding in the emergency department is a potential threat to the quality and safety of patient care. Innovative ways are needed to explore overcrowding, the variables affecting patient flow and interventions necessary for future flow improvement. Aims and objectives: The aim of this review is to explore nurses’ role(s) and their contribution to maintaining patient flow in acute hospitals through emergency departments. Methodology: A systematic review of mixed studies (qualitative, quantitative and mixed-method) using narrative synthesis was undertaken. Five major databases—PubMed, CINHAL, BNI, ASSIA and SCOPUS—were searched to identify appropriate primary and secondary studies. Selected studies were critically appraised with a modified CASP tool. Data extraction and analysis was undertaken using narrative synthesis. Results: In total, 34 articles (31 primary studies and three systematic reviews) met the inclusion criteria. This systematic review is informed by studies from several countries, including the UK, US, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. The qualitative arm of this review explored both the role and function of nurses, as well as their experiences and perspectives of the patient flow process, while the quantitative arm investigated nurses’ contribution to patient flow in terms of length of stay (LOS), triage time, and other associated performance data. Findings: Nurses’ contribution to patient flow spanned their operational, strategic, and expanded roles. Strategic and expanded nursing roles offered the possibility of reducing LOS, triage time, and ED crowding in addition to improving the experience of patients and staff. Nurses in operational roles deployed experiential knowledge pertaining to several invisible aspects of patient flow challenges thereby facilitating decision-making for strategic flow improvement. The experiential knowledge and skills of these nursing roles are central to the success of flow-related interventions. However, the effects of emotional labour (e.g. conflicts, frustrations) of patient flow processes on nurses are significant and may have unaccounted for transaction costs and consequences that need acknowledging in order to be addressed by managers and policy makers. Conclusions and recommendations: Policy-makers and senior managers need to capitalise on nurses’ experiential knowledge and skills to enhance the strategic design and development of flow management in acute hospitals. Recommendations from this review have potential to deploy those skills and knowledge in flow improvement.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103709
JournalInternational Journal of Nursing Studies
Early online date11 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020


  • Acute hospital
  • Flow management
  • Mixed method
  • Narrative synthesis
  • Nurses role
  • Patient flow
  • Systematic review


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