Healthcare News & Insights

Improved handoff conversations key to avoiding errors

Many serious medical errors in hospitals are caused by miscommunication, and shift changes are a time where communication often breaks down among staffers.

According to a new study from the University of Michigan, doctors and nurses don’t always spend enough time on handoff conversations between shift changes, which can lead to errors that could’ve been easily prevented.

Researchers examined 23 handoff sessions at a Canadian hospital involving 262 patients. They consistently found that, regardless of the severity of their illnesses, doctors tended to spend the most time discussing the first patients in their caseload.

Conversations about patients at the end of their lists were much shorter and less detailed, even if their conditions warranted more discussion.

Although overall, the doctors spent an average of two and a half minutes discussing each patient, many doctors spent at least 50% more time talking about their first patient than they did their last.

In fact, the amount of time spent on handoff conversations declined steadily for each patient after the first one.

Making handoff conversations better

Handoff conversations between shift changes should be taken very seriously. Communicating the right info for each patient is important to ensure continuity of care and decrease the risk of mistakes that could harm patients.

In that light, encourage your doctors and nurses to make more of an effort to prioritize patient cases based on severity when shift changes happen.  If they have a tendency to spend more time talking about patients at the beginning of a handoff conversation, tell them to talk about patients with the most complex conditions first, and save patients with fewer complications for later.

If your hospital has switched over to using electronic medical records, this can make this prioritization process easier, as all the info about patients’ conditions is available at staffers’ fingertips.

If not, stress the importance of keeping notes about everything related to a patient’s treatment. Even a minor symptom that’s omitted can make a big difference in a patient’s condition, so make sure doctors and nurses take care to reveal every necessary detail to the staff on the next shift.

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