Characterizing information decay in patient handoffs

J Surg Educ. Jul-Aug 2014;71(4):480-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jsurg.2013.12.002. Epub 2014 Jan 13.


Objective: The purpose of this study was to analyze the decay of information with multiple sequential patient handoff reports given by third-year medical students who have not had standardized patient handoff training.

Methods: We examine the information decay of quantitative parameters included in 2 different simulated patient history and physical handoffs conducted among third-year medical students. Both student self-surveys and third party observer surveys tracked accuracy of information. A total of 93 students were surveyed for the first patient scenario and 103 students were surveyed for second patient scenario. Survey data were aggregated into 2 separate spreadsheets, one for each patient scenario tested. A total of 16 data points pertaining to the checklist were analyzed for common trends in handoff accuracy and information decay.

Results: Quantitative analysis of information passed between handoffs showed that between the 2 case scenarios, there was a consistent loss of information between one presenter to the next. Overall, 33% of information was lost between the first and third handoffs. Within the progression of individual handoffs, a narrative decay was demonstrated. There was a regression in handoff accuracy, trending down to an average of only 45% of information being passed on successfully by the time each presenter reached the last piece of information in their patient presentation. When examining the survey data points that had greater than an 80% success rate of being included in the handoffs, there appeared to be no correlation between their inherent qualities.

Conclusions: This study showed there is a significant decrease in accuracy of information during sequential patient handoff exercises. The information decay may be a result of time, memory, or relevance of the information to the student. Future studies incorporating teaching effective handoffs early in the clinical curriculum would be an area of future research.

Keywords: Interpersonal and Communication Skills; Patient Care; Systems-Based Practice; information decay; medical student education; patient handoffs.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Checklist
  • Clinical Competence / standards
  • Communication
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control
  • Patient Handoff* / organization & administration
  • Patient Handoff* / standards
  • Patient Handoff* / statistics & numerical data
  • Students, Medical