Communicating in the "gray zone": perceptions about emergency physician hospitalist handoffs and patient safety

Acad Emerg Med. 2007 Oct;14(10):884-94. doi: 10.1197/j.aem.2007.06.037.


Objectives: To identify the perceptions of emergency physicians (EPs) and hospitalists regarding interservice handoff communication as patients are transferred from the emergency department to the inpatient setting.

Methods: Investigators conducted individual interviews with 12 physicians (six EPs and six hospitalists). Data evaluation consisted of using the steps of constant comparative, thematic analysis.

Results: Physicians perceived handoff communication as a gray zone characterized by ambiguity about patients' conditions and treatment. Two major themes emerged regarding the handoff gray zone. The first theme, poor communication practices and conflicting communication expectations, presented barriers that exacerbated physicians' information ambiguity. Specifically, handoffs consisting of insufficient information, incomplete data, omissions, and faulty information flow exacerbated gray zone problems and may negatively affect patient outcomes. EPs and hospitalists had different expectations about handoffs, and those expectations influenced their interactions in ways that may result in communication breakdowns. The second theme illustrated how poor handoff communication contributes to boarding-related patient safety threats for boarders and emergency department patients alike. Those interviewed talked about the systemic failures that lead to patient boarding and how poor handoffs exacerbated system flaws.

Conclusions: Handoffs between EPs and hospitalists both reflect and contribute to the ambiguity inherent in emergency medicine. Poor handoffs, consisting of faulty communication behaviors and conflicting expectations for information, contribute to patient boarding conditions that can pose safety threats. Pragmatic conclusions are drawn regarding physician-physician communication in patient transfers, and recommendations are offered for medical education.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Communication*
  • Continuity of Patient Care*
  • Emergency Medicine / methods*
  • Hospitalists / methods*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Liability, Legal
  • Michigan
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Admission
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration
  • Qualitative Research
  • Risk Assessment / methods
  • Safety*