• clinical decision-making;
  • critical care nurses;
  • context;
  • geographical landscape;
  • decision-making influences

Background. Many studies have tended to explore individual characteristics that impact on nurses’ decision-making, despite significant acknowledgement that context is a major determinant in decision-making. The few studies that have examined environmental influences have tended not to study real decisions in the dynamic and complex clinical environment.

Aims. To investigate environmental influences on nurses’ real decisions in the critical care setting.

Method. Naturalistic observations and semi-structured interviews were conducted with 18 critical care nurses in private, public and rural hospitals. Observations and interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and coded for themes using content analysis.

Results. All clinical decisions were strongly influenced by the context in which the decision was made. Three main environmental influences were identified: the patient situation, resource availability and interpersonal relationships. Time and risk guided all clinical decisions. Nurses established the state of the situation, the time constraints on decisions and the level of risk involved for both patient and nurse.

Conclusions. Decision-making is a manifestation of the landscape and although an increased understanding of the landscape is required, more important is the need to measure the impact of contextual variables on nurses’ decision-making in order to improve health care outcomes.