Patient Signout Is Not Uniformly Comprehensive and Often Lacks Critical Information


Clinical question: Do signouts vary in the quality and quantity of information, and what are the various factors affecting signout quality?

Background: Miscommunication during transfers of responsibility for hospitalized patients is common and can result in harm. Recommendations for safe and effective handoffs emphasize key content, clear communication, senior staff supervision, and adequate time for questions. Still, little is known about adherence to these recommendations in clinical practice.

Study design: Prospective, observational cohort.

Setting: Medical unit of an acute-care teaching hospital.

Synopsis: Oral signouts were audiotaped among IM house staff teams and the accompanying written signouts were collected for review of content. Signout sessions (n=88) included eight IM teams at one hospital and contained 503 patient signouts.

The median signout duration was 35 seconds (IQR 19-62) per patient. Key clinical information was present in just 62% of combined written or oral signouts. Most signouts included no questions from the recipient. Factors associated with higher rate of content inclusion included: familiarity with the patient, sense of responsibility (primary team vs. covering team), only one signout per day (as compared to sequential signout), presence of a senior resident, and comprehensive, written signouts.

Study limitations include the Hawthorne effect, as several participants mentioned that the presence of audiotape led to more comprehensive signouts than are typical. Also, the signout quality assessment in this study has not been validated with patient-safety outcomes.

Bottom line: Signouts among internal-medicine residents at this one hospital showed variability in terms of quantitative and qualitative information and often missed crucial information about patient care.

Citation: Horwitz LI, Moin T, Krumholz HM, Wang L, Bradley EH. What are covering doctors told about their patients? Analysis of sign-out among internal medicine house staff. Qual Saf Health Care. 2009;18(4):248-255.

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