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What makes a good handover?


Giving an in-depth handover allows you to go home safe in the knowledge that your patients are taken care of but how should you hand over your patients?

Your mentor has asked you give handover.

Panic rises at the thought of speaking to a room full of people about something you’re still learning.

Questions start running through your mind – “Did Bed 12 have any breakfast?” “What tests did the doctor order for Bed 4?” “How many patients are even on the ward?!”

It’s nerve-wracking and you can feel as though you’ve been put on the spot. But handovers are arguably one of the most important parts of nursing, whichever branch you are on – and therefore one of the most important things for you to master.

The NMC code of conduct instructs nurses to work with colleagues to monitor the quality of their work and maintain the safety of those in their care. Handovers give staff the opportunity to discuss the treatment they’re giving, communicate problems and concerns and ensure everyone knows exactly what’s going on. By doing this, the team can prevent jobs from being missed or repeated.

As a student, you can also use this opportunity to ask questions and familiarise yourself with the nursing process.

Sarah Harris, a third year student nurse from Ayr, Scotland, remembers her first experience of handovers. “My concerns when I first started giving handovers were that people would dread it when they found out I was giving it. My initial handovers were all over the place and I’m surprised anyone got any useful information from me at all!”

Nursing speak

Of course, if you don’t understand what’s going on then no matter how hard you concentrate, the handover will be a waste of time.

“Initially the hardest part of handovers was the abbreviations used,” recalls Sarah. “Once I got used to these it was easier.”

But getting used to abbreviations is easier said than done. The usual advice still stands (Ask, ask and ask again!) but if that’s not possible, make a note of terms that are new to you and speak to someone afterwards or you can look them up here: Nursepedia.

For help with mental health terms have a look at: Decoding your mental health placement.

What goes in to a handover?

The handover of each patient is generally made up of three sections:

  • Past: historical info.The patient’s diagnosis, anything the team needs to know about them and their treatment plan. So you’d include things like whether they are nil-by-mouth or require barrier nursing, if they need help with eating or using the toilet. If they are newly admitted then it’s a good idea to cover the circumstances leading to their admission.
  • Present: current presentation. How the patient has been this shift and any changes to their treatment plan. Keep in mind that significant changes might have occurred before your shift that the new team are not aware of; check when they were last in and what they already know. Include physical observations and any results from assessments or investigations.
  • Future: what is still to be done. For lots of reasons, there can be jobs that have to be handed over to the next shift. Tasks that need to be completed at a certain time or something the team simply haven’t had time to do yet.

What needs to be happen for this patient to be discharged?

Potentially there is a lot of information that could be handed over. Sarah found that prioritising the most important points and identifying who she was handing over to, helped her to give relevant handovers. “I used to give every single piece of information I had, even if it wasn’t relevant. It doesn’t really matter to night staff if the patient has a package of care at home but I do need to tell them that their vital signs are abnormal and that they are at risk of deterioration overnight.”

So how do you prioritise? Take a step back and think about what the team need to know. If you struggle to decide what’s important and what’s less so, a good idea is to make notes before you start. Try using a simple table like the one below to help you get what you’re going to say straight in your head beforehand. There’s no reason why you can’t take your notes with you.


Name/Bed number Diagnosis Special notes Presentation Tasks
John Bloggs, Bed 12 Acute renal failure MRSA positive, barrier nursed, pressure sore on right leg.

Slept most of morning.

No change to treatment plan.

Dressings need changing at 17:00.

Hourly obs.

Paul Jones, Bed 17 Schizophrenia

Nursed on 1:1 obs.


Caught smoking in bed area, lighter confiscated.

Compliant with oral medication.

BM’s 5.8 before lunch.

Needs depot.

Continue 1:1 observations.

Encourage to attend to hygiene needs.


Beating the nerves

Yes it’s scary. There’s no getting away from that. But, like most things, the best way to get over that fear is to dive straight in.

During handover, it is more important than ever to speak up if you are unsure, it sounds obvious but never make up what you think is happening! If you don’t know what a patient’s blood pressure is, say you don’t or better yet check their chart. Next time you’ll know to check beforehand.

You’re there to learn so it’s reasonable to ask to just handover one or two patients to build up your confidence before you hand over the whole ward. Sarah had positive experiences of working with mentors to learn how to hand over: “Going through the report with me and making sure I understood everything that had been handed over really helped. Practicing handovers with my mentor and other students beforehand did as well.”


Read more tips and advice for making the most of your placement on Student Nursing Times


Readers' comments (12)

  • This is so helpfull. im a third year student just about to have my FIRST ward placement (yes you read rite). i have had little handover experience and now that im a 3rd year im even more nervous about doing it as i feel im expected to know things. thanks

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  • I find that a good way to start out handing over is to start by handing over your patients to a fellow student on your ward. I did this on my first time handing over and it went smoothly and i was able to feel comfortable as we were both in th same situation. Its a good way to start to build up your confidence in handing over. Louise (2nd year student)

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  • This is a really good rticle. Thank you. It has helped me a lot in my reflection.

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  • I am due to start first year in September, when are you likely expected to give a handover, surely not your first placement or would it be dependant on your ability?

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  • Practising handing over with fellow students is a good tip which I shall be putting into practice on placement at the end of the month!

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  • Very useful, thank you!

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  • Very helpful, thank you so much.

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  • Sarah Suddick

    Become familiar with SBAR (situation, background, assessment and recommendation) and use this for any handover as a way to share vital patient information in a way that is precise and accurate

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  • Even when I am handing over to the night shift I would still handover the information on care packages at home as they are the ones that are handing over to the following day shift.
    Unfortunately handover can be a little bit like Chinese whispers and a lot of information can get lost down the line. If I am on a ward that hasn't got a handover sheet and I have already created an SBAR for a patient - I just hand this to the next shift.

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  • saved to Dropbox and look forward to reading later. I have witnessed far more extremely poor ones during my long career including those from experienced and senior clinicians.

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