National study to improve patient safety in hospital handovers
Friday, 11 November 2011 08:34

Improving how doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals hand over information about patients in hospitals is the focus of a new national research project aiming to reduce the rate of critical incidents caused by communication breakdowns and misunderstandings.

The ECCHo project - Effective Clinical Communication in Handover: improving patient safety, experiences and outcomes - is being launched in Adelaide on Monday 14 November by South Australian Minister for Health John Hill.

Led by the University of Technology, Sydney, ECCHo involves a team from six universities and four health departments from New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland.

Project leader, UTS Professor of Applied Linguistics Diana Slade, said the World Health Organization had identified improving handover practice as one of its top three patent safety solutions.

She said in Australia ineffective communication in handover was acknowledged as a significant cause of critical incidents and even patient death.

"Officially clinical handover is defined as the transfer of professional responsibility and accountability for a patient, or a group of patients, to another person or professional group," Professor Slade said.

"In practice a combination of time pressures, increasing presentation loads, increasing cultural and linguistic diversity and the expectation that clinicians work in multidisciplinary teams means that spoken interactions now carry a greater burden than ever before.

"One of our tasks is to develop a communications framework that fosters empathy and rapport as well as effectively transferring medical knowledge. For example our data suggests that junior doctors often feel they can't ask questions when they don't understand something they're told by a senior colleague.

"Communicating care is just as important as delivering care and our project will identify strategies to help healthcare professionals ensure that patient records accurately capture the complexity of what is said about the patient."

The three-year ECCHo project, supported by more than $3.5 million, including Australian Research Council funding and cash and in-kind support from health departments (SA, ACT, WA and NSW), will develop national guidelines and policies for clinical handovers, leading to safer healthcare practices.

Cross-disciplinary teams of academic researchers, healthcare professionals and policy makers will look at different aspects of the problem. In NSW and the ACT researchers will focus on handovers in emergency departments and transfers to the wards, other hospitals and the community. In South Australia, research will focus on handovers in mental health and in WA on handovers to city hospitals from rural areas.

The project will build on research into communication between patients and emergency department staff by UTS in five NSW and ACT hospitals, which produced final recommendations in August.

Professor Slade said the ECCHo team was already forging contacts in the USA, UK and Asia to feed into international research on the issue.

The participants are UTS (lead partner), the University of Adelaide, Flinders University, Curtin University, the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland (funded by an ARC Linkage Grant), with industry partners the Department of Health South Australia, ACT Government Health Directorate, Department of Health Western Australia, and Department of Health NSW.