Residents' and attending physicians' handoffs: a systematic review of the literature

Acad Med. 2009 Dec;84(12):1775-87. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181bf51a6.


Purpose: Effective communication is central to patient safety. There is abundant evidence of negative consequences of poor communication and inadequate handoffs. The purpose of the current study was to conduct a systematic review of articles focused on physicians' handoffs, conduct a qualitative review of barriers and strategies, and identify features of structured handoffs that have been effective.

Method: The authors conducted a thorough, systematic review of English-language articles, indexed in PubMed, published between 1987 and June 2008, and focused on physicians' handoffs in the United States. The search strategy yielded 2,590 articles. After title review, 401 were obtained for further review by trained abstractors.

Results: Forty-six articles met inclusion criteria, 33 (71.7%) of which were published between 2005 and 2008. Content analysis yielded 91 handoffs barriers in eight major categories and 140 handoffs strategies in seven major categories. Eighteen articles involved research on handoffs. Quality assessment scores for research studies ranged from 1 to 13 (possible range 1-16). One third of the reviewed research studies obtained quality scores at or below 8, and only one achieved a score of 13. Only six studies included any measure of handoff effectiveness.

Conclusions: Despite the negative consequences of inadequate physicians' handoffs, very little research has been done to identify best practices. Many of the existing peer-reviewed studies had design or reporting flaws. There is remarkable consistency in the anecdotally suggested strategies; however, there remains a paucity of evidence to support these strategies. Overall, there is a great need for high-quality handoff outcomes studies focused on systems factors, human performance, and the effectiveness of structured protocols and interventions.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Length of Stay
  • Medical Staff, Hospital*
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration*
  • Patient Care Team / standards
  • Qualitative Research