Lost in translation: challenges and opportunities in physician-to-physician communication during patient handoffs

Acad Med. 2005 Dec;80(12):1094-9. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200512000-00005.


Handoffs involve the transfer of rights, duties, and obligations from one person or team to another. In many high-precision, high-risk contexts such as a relay race or handling air traffic, handoff skills are practiced repetitively to optimize precision and anticipate errors. In medicine, wide variation exists in handoffs of hospitalized patients from one physician or team to another. Effective information transfer requires a solid foundation in communication skills. While these skills have received much attention in the medical literature, scholarship has focused on physician-to-patient, not physician-to-physician, communication. Little formal attention or education is available to reinforce this vital link in the continuity of patient care. The authors reviewed the literature on patient handoffs and evaluated the patient handoff process at Indiana University School of Medicine's internal medicine residency. House officers there rotate through four hospitals with three different computer systems. Two of the hospitals employ a computer-assisted patient handoff system; the other two utilize the standard pen-to-paper method. Considerable variation was observed in the quality and content of handoffs across these settings. Four major barriers to effective handoffs were identified: (1) the physical setting, (2) the social setting, (3) language barriers, and 4) communication barriers. The authors conclude that irrespective of local context, precise, unambiguous, face-to-face communication is the best way to ensure effective handoffs of hospitalized patients. They also maintain that the handoff process must be standardized and that students and residents must be taught the most effective, safe, satisfying, and efficient ways to perform handoffs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Continuity of Patient Care*
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine / education
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Interprofessional Relations*
  • Medical Records Systems, Computerized
  • Patient Care Team
  • Quality of Health Care