Christina Payne, MD, is a third-year resident at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta who will begin her first hospitalist job, with Emory in September. In spite of her dearth of practical experience, she already has experience researching one of the most vexing problems confronting HM: how to improve transitions of care.
Dr. Payne has been studying the benefits of a structured electronic tool that generates a standardized sign-out list of a hospital team’s full census at the time of shift change, compared with the usual, highly variable sign-out practices of medical residents. At a poster presentation at Internal Medicine 2010 in April in Toronto, Dr. Payne and colleagues reported that residents using the tool were twice as confident at performing handoffs, had lower rates of perceived near-miss events, and were happier.1
“Hospitalists everywhere are starting to realize the importance of trying to reduce opportunities for human error that occur during care transitions,” Dr. Payne says. “The biggest thing I learned from this research is the importance of standardizing the handoff process [with information communicated consistently].
“It is essential to keep communication lines open,” Dr. Payne adds. “No tool can replace the importance of communication between doctors and the need to sit down and talk. The ideal signout happens in a quiet room where the two of you can talk about active patients and achieve rapport. But, realistically, how often does that happen?”
Standardization is one of a handful of strategies hospitalists, researchers, and policymakers are using to tackle transitions—both in-hospital handoffs and post-discharge transitions—with outpatient care. Some hospitalists are using practice simulations and training strategies; others have implemented medication reconciliation checks at every discharge, checklists and other communication strategies, team-based quality-improvement (QI) initiatives, and new technologies to enhance and streamline communication. Some interventions follow the patient from the hospital to the community physician with a phone call, follow-up clinic, or other contact; others aim to empower the patient to be a better self-advocate. But for hospitalists, the challenge is to communicate the right amount of transfer information to the right receiver at the right time.
No matter the technique, the goal is the same: Improve the handoff and discharge process in a way that promotes efficiency and patient safety. And hospitalists are at the forefront of the changing landscape of care transitions.
Under the Microscope
Care transitions of all kinds are under the magnifying glass of national healthcare reform, with growing recognition of the need to make care safer and reduce the preventable, costly hospital readmissions caused by incomplete handoffs. Care transitions for hospitalists include internal handoffs, both at daily shift changes and at service changes when an outgoing provider is leaving after a period of consecutive daily shifts. These typically involve a sign-out process and face-to-face encounter, with some kind of written backup. One teaching institution reported that such handoffs take place 4,000 times per day in the hospital, or 1.6 million times per year.2
—Arpana Vidyarthi, MD, University of California at San Francisco
Geographical transitions can be from one floor or department to another, or out the hospital door to another facility or home. Transitions typically involve a discharge process and a written discharge summary. Care transitions also include hospital admissions, which put the hospitalist in the role of handoff receiver rather than initiator, plus a variety of other transitions involving nurses, physician extenders, and other practitioners.