Modelling emergency decisions: recognition-primed decision making. The literature in relation to an ophthalmic critical incident

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To review and reflect on the literature on recognition-primed decision (RPD) making and influences on emergency decisions with particular reference to an ophthalmic critical incident involving the sub-arachnoid spread of local anaesthesia following the peribulbar injection.


This paper critics the literature on recognition-primed decision making, with particular reference to emergency situations. It illustrates the findings by focussing on an ophthalmic critical incident.


Systematic literature review with critical incident reflection.


Medline, CINAHL and PsychINFO databases were searched for papers on recognition-primed decision making (1996–2004) followed by the ‘snowball method’. Studies were selected in accordance with preset criteria.


A total of 12 papers were included identifying the recognition-primed decision making as a good theoretical description of acute emergency decisions. In addition, cognitive resources, situational awareness, stress, team support and task complexity were identified as influences on the decision process.


Recognition-primed decision-making theory describes the decision processes of experts in time-bound emergency situations and is the foundation for a model of emergency decision making (Fig. 2).

Relevance to clinical practice

Decision theory and models, in this case related to emergency situations, inform practice and enhance clinical effectiveness. The critical incident described highlights the need for nurses to have a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of anaesthetic techniques as well as an ability to manage and resuscitate patients autonomously. In addition, it illustrates how the critical incidents should influence the audit cycle with improvements in patient safety.

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