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Better communication during patient handovers ‘could save lives’

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Improving communication between paramedics, prehospital critical care teams and emergency staff could “enhance” the care and wellbeing of critically ill or injured patients, according to UK studies.

Researchers from the University of Stirling found that improving the accuracy and quality of patient information during handovers yielded positive results.

“Our study identified at least seven different mnemonics in use by clinicians during patient handover”

David Fitzpatrick

They achieved the handover improvements through the introduction of low-tech aids and shared mental models of communication.

The success of the idea has led to the Scottish Ambulance Service introducing a pre-alert and handover card to enhance communication in critical situations.

The Stirling researchers carried out two studies on the topic that are published in the Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine and BMC Emergency Medicine.

Dr David Fitzpatrick, the senior lecturer who led both pieces of research, surveyed road-based ambulance clinicians, specialist prehospital clinicians and emergency department staff.

He said: “Poor communication during patient handover is recognised within international literature as one of the root causes of a significant proportion of preventable deaths. However, little was known about either prehospital or emergency department handover processes in Scotland.”

Dr Fitzpatrick’s initial study investigated current handover practices, perceived challenges and the preferred handover mnemonic employed by road-based ambulance clinicians and active members of specialist prehospital teams in Scotland.

“This evidence-based approach will support prehospital clinicians deliver essential clinical information”

David Fitzpatrick

“Our research found that many clinicians rely on their memory or informal notes taken during patient handover,” he said.

“This critical process is complicated further by the fact that our study identified at least seven different mnemonics in use by clinicians during patient handover,” he said. “This has the potential to lead to inconsistent information recording and delivery.

“Although current practices were described overall as being effective, the variability in mnemonic use and information provided may have led to participants reporting feeling less confident that they had received all essential information during handover,” he noted.

The most frequently reported method of recording and transferring information during handovers was via memory, with interruptions perceived as the most significant barrier.

Survey participants also highlighted variability in handover mnemonic, lack of coordination between responders and lack of structured process as other potential barriers.

Significantly, 48% of responders felt that it was either “difficult” or “very difficult” to find time to prepare for prehospital handover.

“There were a number of elements identified within the current system that appear to impede the handover process and that require attention,” said Dr Fitzpatrick.

“We used this information to devise a novel, low-tech, paper-based intervention”

David Fitzpatrick

The study recommended the development of a shared model through standardising the system, innovations to support information recording and delivery, and clear identification at incidents of a handover lead.

Dr Fitzpatrick’s second study measured the feasibility of an intervention to support clinical information recording and exchange during emergency department handovers.

“We used this information to devise a novel, low-tech, paper-based intervention in a bid to improve the data recording and information exchange processes – and ultimately seeking to ensure safe and effective patient handover,” he said.

Following consultation with an expert stakeholder group, an intervention to support information recording, pre-alert and handover was co-designed by Southampton University and the researchers.

Paramedics were then given plastic, double-sided A6 cards, which included fields requesting vital clinical information required for pre-alert and handover.

Meanwhile, the receiving emergency department was supplied with a corresponding “ambulance form”. The same mnemonic was used in both to support the shared mental model concept.

Both resources included fields to record patient data during pre-alert – initial information provided by paramedics via radio – and handover, filled out on arrival.

The intervention – piloted in Glasgow between February and April 2017 – proved highly acceptable to ambulance clinician participants, improving their data recording and information exchange processes.

There were demonstrable improvements in the delivery of eight out of 12 clinical variables provided during the pre-alert process and perceived improvements in handover quality.

University of Stirling

David Fitzpatrick

David Fitzpatrick

However, Dr Fitzpatrick noted that further research was now required to further test the intervention and establish its impact on information exchange during pre-alert and handover.

The Scottish Ambulance Service and Trauma Networks across Scotland have now adopted the pre-alert and handover card, with all ambulance clinicians to receive the resource.

Dr Fitzpatrick added: “These results suggest that the introduction of a low-tech, novel intervention is very acceptable to ambulance clinicians, intuitive to use, requires little education on use and positively supports their contemporaneous data recording and information exchange processes.

“Although our data suggests the intervention is effective in improving information sharing during pre-alert and handover, further, more rigorous studies are needed into the interventions effectiveness and more generally into prehospital handover,” he said.

“This evidence-based approach will support prehospital clinicians deliver essential clinical information to ensure the safe and effective handover of time-critical patients,” he added.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • What ridiculous research. It’s a bit like saying ‘ if you drink water you will survive longer’. What’s going on here? This is basic stuff. We shouldn’t even be talking about this.

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  • Jumall

    Handover is challenging for paramedics and nurses as time is limited and patients lives may depend on accuracy . Written reports would be useful to improve safety and eliminate forgetting something important.

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