Content counts, but context makes the difference in developing expertise: A qualitative study of how residents learn end of shift handoffs 17 Psychology and Cognitive Sciences 1701 Psychology

Nicholas A. Rattray, Patricia Ebright, Mindy E. Flanagan, Laura G. Militello, Paul Barach, Zamal Franks, Shakaib U. Rehman, Howard S. Gordon, Richard M. Frankel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Background: Handoff education is both formal and informal and varies widely across medical school and residency training programs. Despite many efforts to improve clinical handoffs, little evidence has shown meaningful improvement. The objective of this study was to identify residents' perspectives and develop a deeper understanding on the necessary training to conduct safe and effective patient handoffs. Methods: A qualitative study focused on the analysis of cognitive task interviews targeting end-of-shift handoff experiences with 35 residents from three geographically dispersed VA facilities. The interview data were analyzed using an iterative, consensus-based team approach. Researchers discussed and agreed on code definitions and corresponding case examples. Grounded theory was used to analyze the transcripts. Results: Although some residents report receiving formal training in conducting handoffs (e.g., medical school coursework, resident boot camp/workshops, and handoff debriefing), many residents reported that they were only partially prepared for enacting them as interns. Experiential, practice-based learning (i.e., giving handoffs, covering night shift to match common issues to handoff content) was identified as the most suited and beneficial for delivering effective handoff training. Six skills were described as critical to learning effective handoffs: identifying pertinent information, providing anticipatory guidance, applying acquired clinical knowledge, being concise, incorporating delivery strategies, and appreciating the styles/preferences of handoff recipients. Conclusions: Residents identified the immersive performance and the experience of covering night shifts as the most important aspects of learning to execute effective handoffs. Formal education alone can miss the critical role of real-time sense-making throughout the process of handing off from one trainee to another. Interventions targeting senior resident mentoring and night shift could positively influence the cognitive and performance capacity for safe, effective handoffs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number249
JournalBMC medical education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 3 2018



  • Communication
  • Continuing education
  • Patient safety
  • Qualitative research
  • Quality of care
  • Resident handoffs
  • Resident training

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education

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