Background: Hospital organisations based on the level of care intensity have clearly revealed a concept, that of care complexity, which has been widely used for decades in the healthcare field. Despite its wide use, this concept is still poorly defined and it is often confused with and replaced by similar concepts such as care intensity or workload. This study aims to describe the meaning of care complexity as perceived by nurses in their day-to-day experience of hospital clinical care, rehabilitation, home care, and organisation.
Design and methods: Fifteen interviews were conducted with nurses belonging to clinical-care areas and to heterogeneous organisational areas. The interview was of an unstructured type. The participants were selected using a propositional methodology. Colaizzi’s descriptive phenomenological method was chosen for the analysis of the interviews.
Results: The nurses who were interviewed predominantly perceive the definition of care complexity as coinciding with that of workload. Nevertheless, the managerial perspective does not appear to be exclusive, as from the in-depth interviews three fundamental themes emerge that are associated with the concept of care complexity: the patient, the nurse and the organisation.
Conclusions: The study highlights that care complexity consists of both quantitative and qualitative aspects that do not refer only to the organisational dimension. The use of the terminology employed today should be reconsidered: it appears to be inappropriate to talk of measurement of care complexity, as this concept also consists of qualitative – thus not entirely quantifiable – aspects referring to the person being cared for. In this sense, reference should instead be made to the evaluation of care complexity, which would also constitute a better and more complete basis for defining the nursing skills required in professional nursing practice.
Complexity of care; intensity; hospital organization; nursing