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New study shows standardization makes hospital hand-offs safer

A study published online this week in Pediatrics offers encouraging results from a large-scale effort to tackle a persistent safety problem in hospitals. The study is the first scientific investigation of a multi-hospital project to improve patient hand-offs, the times when a patient's care is being transferred from one person to another.

When hand-offs go wrong, the doctors and nurses taking over a patient's care may not understand the individual's diagnosis or current problems. They might not know which tests have been completed or which medication doses have already been given. These types of errors can, at best, waste everyone's time, and, at worst, harm patients.

Fortunately, these latest findings demonstrate how hospitals can cut back dramatically on such problems. The one-year study of 23 pediatric hospitals across the country found a significant drop in hand-off related care failures when the process was standardized. Researchers examined both shift changes and patient transfers from one hospital department to another. The rate of hand-off related care failures went from slightly over 25 percent at baseline to about 8 percent by the end of the study. (Researchers didn't measure actual harm to patients, but rather communication failures that could have resulted in harm had they gone unnoticed.)

"Surprisingly, this manuscript was amongst the first of its kind to actually show a decrease hand-off-related care failures," senior author Paul Sharek, MD, medical director of quality management and chief clinical patient safety officer at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, said in an e-mail.

How did they improve so dramatically? By defining every element of the hand-off, including the interactions' intent, content, process and team leadership. At the end of the study, the researchers identified several elements of good hand-offs, including the need for active participation by both sending and receiving teams; a defined opportunity for the receiving team to ask questions; a script of all the important hand-off elements; and a summary of basic issues and next steps for each patient. Overall, caregivers were satisfied with the new process, suggesting they'd buy into it for the long run.

"Given the increasing recognition of the risk of hand-offs in health care, these findings reassure us that large-scale improvements in hand-0ff safety can be achieved rapidly," the researchers write.

Previously: Less burnout, better safety culture in hospitals with hands-on executives, new study shows, How efforts to mine electronic health records influence clinical care and Automated safety checklists prevent hospital-acquired infections, Stanford team finds

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