Accurate communication between clinicians in handovers is vital. Photo by Getty Images.

Accurate communication between clinicians in handovers is vital. Photo by Getty Images.

The right dose?

Miscommunication in hospitals can have fatal consequences for patients. What can be done to improve how clinicians share patient information? Evana Ho reports.

Picture a global map of flight paths, a multitude of lines running between cities.

A hospital is a bit like that, with doctors and nurses going from patient to patient every day. However, for hospitals the picture is even more complicated.

That’s because the lines intersect, with healthcare professionals talking to colleagues and reading or writing reports, to receive and pass along information about patients.

This transfer of information and responsibility for care is called clinical handover.

An estimated 40 million handovers happen every year in Australian hospitals, spanning a person’s entry into hospital, their transfer between wards, to their eventual discharge.

At every one of these millions of handovers, there is the possibility of miscommunication of the information or gaps and errors in the way it is transferred.

The Head of the ANU Institute for Communication in Healthcare (ICH) Professor Diana Slade warns: “With each of these errors or misunderstandings, there are potential risks to patient safety.”

In fact, these risks too often become real, such as when patients are given the wrong tablets.

Each year, failures in communication make up 85–90 per cent of the 500,000 avoidable critical incidents that occur in hospitals, such as harm or death resulting from being given excessive or inappropriate medication.It’s a $600 million problem for the government. And it’s a problem Slade and her Institute colleagues are working to redress.