Send to

Choose Destination

Clinical handover within the emergency care pathway and the potential risks of clinical handover failure (ECHO): primary research.


Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2014 Mar.
Health Services and Delivery Research.

Author information

Warwick Medical School, Coventry, UK
Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Hampshire County Hospital, Winchester, UK
Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK
United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, UK
Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, Birmingham, UK



Handover and communication failures are a recognised threat to patient safety. Handover in emergency care is a particularly vulnerable activity owing to the high-risk context and overcrowded conditions. In addition, handover frequently takes place across the boundaries of organisations that have different goals and motivations, and that exhibit different local cultures and behaviours. This study aimed to explore the risks associated with handover failure in the emergency care pathway, and to identify organisational factors that impact on the quality of handover.


Three NHS emergency care pathways were studied. The study used a qualitative design. Risks were explored in nine focus group-based risk analysis sessions using failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA). A total of 270 handovers between ambulance and the emergency department (ED), and the ED and acute medicine were audio-recorded, transcribed and analysed using conversation analysis. Organisational factors were explored through thematic analysis of semistructured interviews with a purposive convenience sample of 39 staff across the three pathways.


Handover can serve different functions, such as management of capacity and demand, transfer of responsibility and delegation of aspects of care, communication of different types of information, and the prioritisation of patients or highlighting of specific aspects of their care. Many of the identified handover failure modes are linked causally to capacity and patient flow issues. Across the sites, resuscitation handovers lasted between 38 seconds and 4 minutes, handovers for patients with major injuries lasted between 30 seconds and 6 minutes, and referrals to acute medicine lasted between 1 minute and approximately 7 minutes. Only between 1.5% and 5% of handover communication content related to the communication of social issues. Interview participants described a range of tensions inherent in handover that require dynamic trade-offs. These are related to documentation, the verbal communication, the transfer of responsibility and the different goals and motivations that a handover may serve. Participants also described the management of flow of patients and of information across organisational boundaries as one of the most important factors influencing the quality of handover. This includes management of patient flows in and out of departments, the influence of time-related performance targets, and the collaboration between organisations and departments. The two themes are related. The management of patient flow influences the way trade-offs around inner tensions are made, and, on the other hand, one of the goals of handover is ensuring adequate management of patient flows.


The research findings suggest that handover should be understood as a sociotechnical activity embedded in clinical and organisational practice. Capacity, patient flow and national targets, and the quality of handover are intricately related, and should be addressed together. Improvement efforts should focus on providing practitioners with flexibility to make trade-offs in order to resolve tensions inherent in handover. Collaborative holistic system analysis and greater cultural awareness and collaboration across organisations should be pursued.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research programme.

Copyright © Queen’s Printer and Controller of HMSO 2014. This work was produced by Sujan et al. under the terms of a commissioning contract issued by the Secretary of State for Health. This issue may be freely reproduced for the purposes of private research and study and extracts (or indeed, the full report) may be included in professional journals provided that suitable acknowledgement is made and the reproduction is not associated with any form of advertising. Applications for commercial reproduction should be addressed to: NIHR Journals Library, National Institute for Health Research, Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre, Alpha House, University of Southampton Science Park, Southampton SO16 7NS, UK.

Support Center