patient handoff at sign-out roundsPatient handoff at sign-out rounds is a high-risk period for clinical oversights and errors. The key to minimize this is to have a clear strategy. This means being precise yet concise, methodical, and forward-thinking in your presentation to the oncoming clinician and team. There are various tools like I-PASS1 to frame your script, but the following are 10 additional key tips to consider.

10 Tips to Minimize Error at Patient Sign-Out Rounds

1. Start with the answer.

This is NOT a murder mystery! Lead with the diagnosis and disposition, if known.

  • NO: “Mrs. Jones in bed 5 has 3 days of fever, periumbilical pain migrating to the RLQ.”
  • YES: “This patient has appendicitis by CT. She’s received appropriate antibiotics, surgery has seen her, she is not pregnant, and her pain is under control. There is nothing to do.”

2. Sign out when you can.

You can never predict when a critically ill patient will arrive, making the oncoming clinician no longer available to take sign-out. Sign out at the designated time. On the receiving end, be ready to take sign-out (even if it is a little early).

3. Start with the sickest or most active patient first.

This is a must. Do not start with someone going home, because they might have left the department by the time you finish sign-out, which increases the likelihood of forgetting something important.

4. Use concise language.

Minimize unnecessary words. More words only add cognitive burden. The more words, the more that may be forgotten.

  • NO: “The first patient that I will tell you about is… actually funny story about him… ”  (all unnecessary).

5. Use precise language.

When describing abnormal values, avoid ambiguity. If it is important enough to mention at sign-out rounds, it requires clarification.

  • NO: The patient has a low blood pressure and elevated lactate.
  • YES: The patient has hypotension with systolics in the 90’s and an initial lactate of 4.6.

6. Include key special information.

For the oncoming clinician, it helps to know if the patient has a unique knowledge base (e.g., is a healthcare provider) or has special needs (e.g., hard of hearing, speaks only Farsi but daughter can translate).

7. Have a disposition in mind.

Is the patient likely to be discharged or being admitted? This does not mean that you have to have arrived at a diagnosis by sign-out rounds, but ideally share your decision-tree plan about disposition and diagnosis. If you are not sure, that is fine. Disclose why you are uncertain and what additional information you need. Be honest.

8. Try not to leave work for others.

You know your patient best. Try not to sign-out unnecessary work. This includes additional diagnostic testing, therapeutics, procedures, and/or consultations, unless both parties agree that this is necessary and to leave the work for the oncoming clinician(s). This also refers to completing discharge instructions in advance (if possible).

9. Be sure to sign out all patients in the department.

This seems intuitive, but this includes even those patients already flagged for discharge. As long as they are in your department, the oncoming clinician/team should be aware in case last-minute problems or patient questions arise.

10. Allow the oncoming clinician/team the chance to ask questions.

This last step allows you to close the loop on any unclear instructions or communications.

Additional Reading

PDF Handout on Handoffs and Consultations from 2012 CORD Academy Assembly Lecture

Starmer A, Spector N, Srivastava R, et al. Changes in medical errors after implementation of a handoff program. N Engl J Med. 2014;371(19):1803-1812. [PubMed]
Gus M. Garmel, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

Gus M. Garmel, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

Adjunct Professor of EM
Stanford University;
Inaugural Member/Distinguished Educator
CORD Academy for Scholarship in Education in EM