ED handoffs: observed practices and communication errors

Am J Emerg Med. 2011 Jun;29(5):502-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2009.12.004. Epub 2010 Apr 28.


Objective: The study objectives were to identify emergency department (ED) handoff practices and describe handoff communication errors among emergency physicians.

Methods: Two investigators observed patient handoffs among emergency physicians in a major metropolitan teaching hospital for 8 weeks. A data collection form was designed to assess handoff characteristics including duration, location, interruptions, and topics including examination, laboratory examinations, diagnosis, and disposition. Handoff errors were defined as clinically significant examination or laboratory findings in physician documentation that were reported significantly differently during or omitted from verbal handoff. Multivariate negative binomial regression models assessed variables associated with these errors. The study was approved by the institutional review board.

Results: One hundred ten handoff sessions encompassing 992 patients were observed. Examination handoff errors and omissions were noted in 130 (13.1%) and 447 (45.1%) handoffs, respectively. More examination errors were associated with longer handoff time per patient, whereas fewer examination omissions were associated with use of written or electronic support materials. Laboratory handoff errors and omissions were noted in 37 (3.7%) and 290 (29.2%) handoffs, respectively. Fewer laboratory errors were associated with use of electronic support tools, whereas more laboratory handoff omissions were associated with longer ED lengths of stay.

Conclusions: Clinically pertinent findings reported in ED physician handoff often differ from findings reported in physician documentation. These errors and omissions are associated with handoff time per patient, ED length of stay, and use of support materials. Future research should focus on ED handoff standardization protocols, handoff error reduction techniques, and the impact of handoff on patient outcomes.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Continuity of Patient Care* / standards
  • Emergency Service, Hospital* / standards
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Medical Errors*
  • Medical Records
  • Physical Examination
  • Prospective Studies
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Surveys and Questionnaires