4 ways to avoid communication errors during patient handoffs

As medical residents transfer patients from one team member to another, they can focus on several key strategies to avoid communication errors, according to a blog post on the AMA Wire.

At an American Medical Association meeting, Joshua Davis, MD, a second-year emergency medicine resident at Penn State Milton Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center, shared four best practices to make patient handoffs more effective:

1. Communicate each patient's unique needs. "Regardless of what specialty you practice, you are used to dealing with certain types of patients," Dr. Davis said. If cardiologists are handing off patients who are all 50-year-old men with chest pain, for example, they may start to blend together. "You want to make sure you hit the salient and important information that a provider needs," Dr. Davis said. "What is different and special about this patient?"

2. Be aware of handoff circumstances. "When I sign my patients off to a hospitalist or whatever specialist, I'm likely never taking care of that patient again," Dr. Davis said. "So, I may need to be a little more detailed, whereas someone who is signing out overnight may not need as much detail in terms of history and things. But they may focus more on the situational awareness."

3. Prioritize handoffs. Residents "must recognize that handoffs are high-risk time," Dr. Davis said. Residents can prepare themselves for handoffs be ensuring they have key information written down.

"I find that having everything written down helps," Dr. Davis said, "If there's a lag between when I call to give someone a report and when I get a call back to give it, I may have done one thing or three things in that time. "

4. Follow protocol. If a hospital does not have an established protocol for patient handoffs, residents can approach their leaders about having a standardized approach, Dr. Davis said.

"It's also important to make sure that everybody recognizes that approach and sticks to it. You can do your best during the handoff to model it and pay attention to [the protocol]."

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