Objective Patients commonly show signs and symptoms of deterioration for hours or days before cardiorespiratory arrest. Rapid response teams (RRT) were created to improve recognition and response to patient deterioration in these situations. Activation criteria include vital signs or 'general concern' by a clinician or family member. The general concern criterion for RRT activation accounts for nearly one-third of all RRT activity, and although it is well established that communication deficits between staff can contribute to poorer outcomes for patients, there is little evidence pertaining to communication and its effects on the general concern RRT activation. Thus, the aim of the present study was to develop a substantive grounded theory related to the communication process between clinicians that preceded the activation of an RRT when general concern criterion was used. Methods Qualitative grounded theory involved collection of three types of data details namely personal notes from participants in focus groups with white board notes from discussions and audio recordings of the focus groups sessions. Focus groups were conducted with participants exploring issues associated with clinician communication and how it related to the activation of an RRT using the general concern criterion. Results The three main phases of coding (i.e. open, axial and selective coding) analysis identified 322 separate open codes. The strongest theme contributed to a theory of ineffective communication and decreased psychological safety, namely that 'In the absence of effective communication there is a subsequent increase in anxiety, fear or concern that can be directly attributed to the activation of an RRT using the 'general concern' criterion'. The RRT filled cultural and process deficiencies in the compliance with an escalation protocol. Issues such as 'not for resuscitation documentation' and 'inability to establish communication with and between medical or nursing personnel' rated highly and contributed to the debate. Conclusions This study highlighted that in the surveillance and management of the deteriorating patient and in the absence of effective communication there is a subsequent increase in anxiety, fear or concern that can be directly attributed to the activation of an RRT for the 'general concern' calling criteria. What is known about the topic? Deficiencies in collaboration and communication between healthcare professionals (HCPs) increase the stress and anxiety of healthcare staff and correspond to poorer outcomes for patients. The RRT can be activated as a 'general concern RRT' without observation of physiological derangements if staff are concerned about a patient's condition, allowing for assistance from a skilled critical care team at the patient's bedside. There are limited data on how poor communication affects the frequency of activation of general concern RRTs. What does this paper add? This study shows that poor communication between health professionals increases staff levels of anxiety and concern. In addition, the RRT system is being used to fill deficiencies in many other hospital processes, including end-of-life discussions. The deficiencies in hospital processes contribute to poor communication and increased levels of concern with this study demonstrating a direct link between a clinician's level of anxiety/concern and the 'general concern' activation category for the RRT system. What are the implications for practitioners? The present study highlights the importance of effective communication strategies between HCPs to improve patient safety and quality of care. The study also highlights the expanding role of the RRT in hospitals, which has implications for hospital policy makers with regard to future funding and resource allocation. Finally, many of the concerns raised in the present study by the focus groups have been addressed by recent measures introduced through the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (e.g. rapid detection and response observation charts and Introduction, Situation, Background, Assessment and Recommendation [ISBAR] style of communication) with these measures supported by the findings of the present study.