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The ins and outs of change of shift handoffs between nurses: a communication challenge


Background Communication breakdowns have been identified as a source of problems in complex work settings such as hospital-based healthcare.

Methods The authors conducted a multi-method study of change of shift handoffs between nurses, including interviews, survey, audio taping and direct observation of handoffs, posthandoff questionnaires, and archival coding of clinical records.

Results The authors found considerable variability across units, nurses and, surprisingly, roles. Incoming and outgoing nurses had different expectations for a good handoff: incoming nurses wanted a conversation with questions and eye contact, whereas outgoing nurses wanted to tell their story without interruptions. More experienced nurses abbreviated their reports when incoming nurses knew the patient, but the incoming nurses responded with a large number of questions, creating a contest for control. Nurses' ratings did not correspond to expert ratings of information adequacy, suggesting that nurses consider other functions of handoffs beyond information processing, such as social interaction and learning.

Discussion These results suggest that variability across roles as information provider versus receiver and experience level (as well as across individual and organisational contexts) are reasons why improvement efforts directed at standardising and improving handoffs have been challenging in nursing and in other healthcare professions as well.

  • Safety culture
  • decision making
  • transitions in care
  • patient safety
  • significant event analysis
  • critical incident review
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