What Is Handoff Communication?

What Is Handoff Communication?

Handoff communication between doctors

Regardless of industry, communication is key when it comes to exchanging information. Whether it’s customer service handing a call off to someone more experienced or medical providers changing shifts, it’s vital to ensure that the person taking over grasps the big picture as clearly as possible. 

This can be true even within the same company. The vocabulary for Human Resources is different than that of Engineering, Sales, and other departments; communication can be problematic when people with uncommon disciplines need to collaborate. When people aren’t communicating at the highest quality, performance breaks down. 

Example: Patient Care

Consider a hospital patient. Many caregivers will interact with them for a variety of reasons, such as shift changes and meal breaks, or the patient transferring between departments for testing or surgery. The Joint Commission in 2010 defined a patient handoff as a “real-time process of passing patient-specific information from one caregiver to another or from one team of caregivers to another for the purpose of ensuring the continuity and safety of the patient’s care.”

Caregivers hand off communication so the next person is knowledgeable about the patient’s situation and needs. Examples include the patient’s current condition, recent or anticipated changes, and any other up-to-date information the caregiver needs. Handoff communication also includes caregivers exchanging questions to ensure they grasp the situation and are capable of doing what’s necessary for the patient without loss of quality—so the patient receives the best possible care.

Other Examples

Let’s briefly look at some other times we see handoff communication.

  • A project manager is going on vacation for two weeks, and a colleague is filling in. She gets her colleague up to speed on the state of her projects so he can take over while she’s out.
  • A technical support representative is unable to solve a tricky issue and escalates the call to the next level, providing background information for the specialist to resolve the issue.
  • An instructor recommending a student for a specialized program updates the new instructor about the student’s learning style. Through handoff communication, the new instructor can follow through to best meet the student’s needs.

Tips for Improving Handoff Communication

Handoff communication can be challenging when there are any number of mismatches that can cause delays—or in the case of patient care, can be life-threatening. Excellent communication skills are vital to three groups of people: 

  • The person or team sending or providing the information
  • The person or team receiving the information
  • The customer, client, team, or patient who is involved

Not only providing clear, concise, and complete information, but also verifying the receiving party has grasped the information provided can make or break a situation. The receiver taking over must be able to do what is necessary, not just understand what has been communicated. 

To ensure the receiver has grasped the discussed subjects, consider the following tips below. We’ll cover grasping in more detail in a future blog. 

  • Avoid abbreviations or jargon that might not be understood or could be misinterpreted.
  • Seek information by asking pertinent questions like “how will you use this information when addressing the patient’s needs?”
  • My goal is not for the giver of info to repeat themselves, rather for giver to ask the receiver to repeat back info or steps if there is any worry about if they got it.


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