Approach to Improving Safety
- Read Back Protocols
- Structured Hand-offs
- Duty Hour Limitation
- Culture of Safety
- Clinical Information Systems
Setting of Care
A 73-year-old female with history of
hypertension, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM), and
chronic renal insufficiency was admitted for an elective sigmoid
resection and diverting colostomy. On postoperative day (POD) 2,
the patient was tachycardic, despite receiving a low-dose
beta-blocker. That same day, she informed her nurse that she had
developed left leg pain. Assuming it was related to the epidural
placed preoperatively, the nurse called anesthesia, and they
responded by decreasing the epidural rate. The primary surgical
team was not called at that time. On POD 3, the patient had no
complaints for the primary team on morning rounds. Later in the
evening, the cross-covering intern was called concerning the left
leg pain. No information about this intern's findings was relayed
to the primary team the next morning. On POD 4, the patient
complained to the nurse of mild chest discomfort. She was seen by
housestaff within 20 minutes and by the attending several hours
later. Her exam was unremarkable. A workup was initiated, but
within an hour of the attending's visit, the patient's blood
pressure dropped to 70/40, followed shortly thereafter by a
pulseless electrical activity (PEA) arrest, from which she could
not be resuscitated. Post-mortem examination revealed pulmonary
This patient's poor outcome occurred in part due to a breakdown in communication between physicians. The transfer of patient data and care responsibility is commonly referred to as a "signout", "passoff", or "handoff." In this case, several problems seem to have contributed, perhaps the most glaring being an error of omission in the signout.
Discontinuity in the care of hospitalized patients is a necessity. No physician can be in the hospital 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone who has ever drawn up a physician or nursing schedule recognizes the stark truth: hours worked and numbers of signouts are inversely related—the fewer hours one is in the hospital, the more times patient care needs to be transferred. For anyone who has watched children playing "Telephone"—a game in which a message whispered in succession is, by the time it reaches the end of the line, nearly always distorted to something completely different—the inherent potential for error due to signouts is obvious. Unfortunately, the process of signout usually fails to account for the inevitability of human error.
Signouts have taken on new importance in the era of resident duty hour restrictions. In July 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) implemented mandates reducing resident duty hours to 80 per week, with no more than 30 consecutive hours worked.(1) These mandates have increased the number of signouts and resultant discontinuity for hospitalized patients across the board.(2) Ironically, a regulation attempting to reduce mistakes made by over-worked physicians could theoretically increase mistakes due to discontinuities in care. In a survey at our institution, nearly half of residents identified the increased numbers of signouts and resultant potential for harm to patients as the main problem with the reduction in work hours (A.V., unpublished data, 2004). Like transfers between institutions or between the inpatient and outpatient setting, in-hospital signouts represent gaps in care and thus demand increased vigilance to avoid placing patients at increased risk for harm.(3) Although practitioners are generally effective in bridging gaps, in this case the measures they took were not enough.
Signouts do not occur in a vacuum. Physicians are undoubtedly influenced by their own sense of the importance of various pieces of data, their memories of past cases, and their own communication skills. Moreover, signouts are carried out in a culture unique to their hospital or training program. Even thorough and succinct verbal signouts are often conducted in interrupted environments, such as at the nurses' station, in the operating room, amidst answering pages, etc. These interruptions carry a psychological cost—diversion of attention, forgetfulness, and errors.(4)
The written aspect of the signout, which one might deem more reliable and impervious to outside influences, can be inconsistent, incomplete, and, at times, inaccessible. In one study, simple information like age and sex was reported incorrectly.(5) In another, necessary information such as code status and allergies was missing in 80% of written signouts.(6) In yet a third, the signout sheet itself was noted to be lost 25% of the time (V. Aurora, unpublished data, 2004). Given human factors, cultural norms, disruptions during verbal communication, and the inadequacies of the written signout, it is not surprising that information is often lost during information transfer.
Communication breakdown and discontinuity of care have deleterious effects on patients. Of the 25,000-30,000 preventable adverse events that led to permanent disability in Australia, 11% were due to communication issues, in contrast to 6% due to inadequate skill levels of practitioners.(7) In one study, being covered by the "cross-coverage" resident was a powerful risk factor for preventable adverse events.(8) Decreasing duty hours in New York in 1989, with the inevitable increase in discontinuity and increase in sign-outs, resulted in delayed test ordering and increased in-hospital complications.(9) Patients were more satisfied with care when admitted by their primary team as opposed to the cross-coverage team.(10) In a study of increasing senior resident continuity, researchers found fewer medication errors, as well as a decrease in length of stay and number of laboratory tests ordered.(11)
Approaching signouts as a "systems issue" will
require that we observe the sign-out process at each hospital or
training program, and engage those at the sharp end—the
housestaff and attendings who engage in signouts—to describe
the system's vulnerabilities and provide potential solutions. The
signout process itself should be standardized. Data suggests that
using checklists (5),
signout cards (6),
and computerized signouts (12)
can increase the quality, reliability, and accuracy of information
as well as satisfaction of the users. Verbal techniques such as
"read-backs" (the listener repeating back salient issues) have been
successful in aviation (2),
and should be instituted as a standard part of the signout process.
Another technique—increasing redundancy—should be
implemented. Specifically, the chart should act as the database for
all information, and any change in status of a patient should be
clearly documented in the chart. For instance, cross-coverage notes
should be written consistently and be explicitly identified as
such. Education at each of these steps, often accompanied by
systems redesign (eg, computer- or PDA-based tools for structuring
signouts), will be necessary. These steps might allow both patients
and providers to derive the intended benefits from limitations on
- Discontinuity in the hospital is inevitable.
- Discontinuity may be increasing in teaching hospitals due to new duty hours mandates.
- The sign-out process
should be standardized to include the
- Change of culture to more obviously value the thorough signout.
- Verbal signout training and use of read-backs.
- Structured written information that must be included during signout.
- A central repository [the patient's chart] where all patient contacts are documented.
- Use of information technology to assist in the information transfer.
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Associate Director for Research, Graduate Medical Education
University of California, San Francisco
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