Dropping the baton: a qualitative analysis of failures during the transition from emergency department to inpatient care

Ann Emerg Med. 2009 Jun;53(6):701-10.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2008.05.007. Epub 2008 Jun 16.


Study objective: We identify, describe, and categorize vulnerabilities in emergency department (ED) to internal medicine patient transfers.

Methods: We surveyed all emergency medicine house staff, emergency physician assistants, internal medicine house staff and hospitalists at an urban, academic medical center. Respondents were asked to describe any adverse events occurring because of inadequate communication between emergency medicine and the admitting physician. We analyzed the open-ended responses with standard qualitative analysis techniques.

Results: Of 139 of 264 survey respondents (53%), 40 (29%) reported that a patient of theirs had experienced an adverse event or near miss after ED to inpatient transfer. These 40 respondents described 36 specific incidents of errors in diagnosis (N=13), treatment (N=14), and disposition (N=13), after which patients experienced harm or a near miss event. Six patients required an upgrade in care from the floor to the ICU. Although we asked respondents to describe communication failures, analysis of responses identified numerous contributors to error: inaccurate or incomplete information, particularly of vital signs; cultural and professional conflicts; crowding; high workload; difficulty in accessing key information such as vital signs, pending data, ED notes, ED orders, and identity of responsible physician; nonlinear patient flow; "boarding" in the ED; and ambiguous responsibility for sign-out or follow-up.

Conclusion: The transfer of a patient from the ED to internal medicine can be associated with adverse events. Specific vulnerable areas include communication, environment, workload, information technology, patient flow, and assignment of responsibility. Systems-based interventions could ameliorate many of these and potentially improve patient safety.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Academic Medical Centers
  • Continuity of Patient Care*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Data Collection
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / organization & administration
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / standards*
  • Humans
  • Interdisciplinary Communication
  • Medical Errors*
  • Patient Admission
  • Patient Transfer*
  • Physicians
  • United States
  • Workload