Handoff Practices in Emergency Medicine: Are We Making Progress?

Acad Emerg Med. 2016 Feb;23(2):197-201. doi: 10.1111/acem.12867. Epub 2016 Jan 14.


Objectives: Transitions of care present a risk for communication error and may adversely affect patient care. This study addresses the scope of current handoff practices amongst U.S. emergency medicine (EM) residents. In addition, it evaluates current educational and evaluation practices related to handoffs. Given the ever-increasing emphasis on transitions of care in medicine, we sought to determine if interval changes in resident transition of care education, assessment, and proficiency have occurred.

Methods: This was a cross-sectional survey study guided by the Kern model for medical curriculum development. The Council of Residency Directors Listserv provided access to 175 programs. The survey focused on elucidating current practices of handoffs from emergency physicians (EPs) to EPs, including handoff location and duration, use of any assistive tools, and handoff documentation in the emergency department (ED) patient's medical record. Multiple-choice questions were the primary vehicle for the response process. A four-point Likert-type scale was used in questions regarding perceived satisfaction and competency. Respondents were not required to answer all questions. Responses were compared to results from a similar 2011 study for interval changes.

Results: A total of 127 of 175 programs responded to the survey, making the overall response rate 72.6%. Over half of respondents (72 of 125, 57.6%) indicated that their ED uses a standardized handoff protocol, which is a significant increase from 43.2% in 2011 (p = 0.018). Of the programs that do have a standardized system, a majority (72 of 113, 63.7%) of resident physicians use it regularly. Significant increases were noted in the number of programs offering formal training during orientation (73.2% from 59.2%; p = 0.015), decreases in the number of programs offering no training (2.4% from 10.2%; p = 0.013), and no assessment of proficiency (51.5% from 69.8%; p = 0.006). No significant interval changes were noted in handoffs being documented in the patient's medical record (57.4%), the percentage of computer/electronic signouts, or the level of dissatisfaction with handoff tools (54.1%). Less than two-thirds of respondents (80 of 126, 63.5%) indicated that their residents were "competent" or "extremely competent" in delivering and receiving handoffs.

Conclusions: An insufficient level of handoff training is currently mandated or available for EM residents, and their handoff skills appear to be developed mostly informally throughout residency training with varying results. Programs that have created a standardized protocol are not ensuring that the protocol is actually being employed in the clinical arena. Handoff proficiency most often goes unevaluated, although it is improved from 2011.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Protocols / standards*
  • Communication
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Documentation
  • Emergency Medicine / education*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency / organization & administration*
  • Male
  • Medical Records
  • Patient Handoff / standards*
  • Time Factors
  • United States