Featuring 2013 ACS Surgical Forum Excellence in Research Award Recipient: Nicole Tapia, MD

12 May 2014
General Surgery Resident Nicole Tapia, MD was honored a Surgical Forum Excellence in Research Award at the 2013 American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress held in Washington, D.C. Her work entitled “PACT Project: Standardized Resident Hand-off Implementation Improves Hand-off Quality” was also chosen as one of the top three resident presentations at the American College of Surgeons South Texas Chapter Meeting held in Austin, Texas during February 2014. The Association of Women Surgeons is proud to present Dr. Tapia’s work—in her own words—on the blog.

Standardizing Resident Hand-offs to Improve Hand-off Quality
by Nicole Tapia, MD

Morbidity and mortality conferences allow us to review our complications and ask ourselves if it was preventable, how it happened, and what we could have done differently to achieve an alternate outcome. There is usually a lesson to be learned during discussion of the adverse patient event, and a new best practice can develop as a result of such dialogue.

I have come to believe that the question of “what could I have done differently” is applicable to many realms of surgical life – struggling in the operating room with a new task, juggling management of a surgical team as a senior resident with both junior resident and attending expectations, and even balancing home and resident life. Recently, my institution offered an Advancing Clinical Excellence (ACE) in Health Care research grant which challenged residents to propose a study to improve health care delivery. They asked us to approach health care with a unique resident perspective and hypothesize and test our ideas.

Brainstorming with another research colleague and my research mentor, we agreed that a current hot topic which is omnipresent in resident work-life is the unintended consequences of the ACGME work hour requirements. In particular, our residents and staff have noted challenges that come with increased patient handoffs as we transitioned to a night-float system. We all agreed that anecdotally, we thought quality of patient care was likely worsened by this change.

Our research group determined that to test and study our hypothesis and improve handoffs, we needed to focus on verbal communication of patient information, as we work at several hospitals with varied electronic medical records and wanted our approach to be independent of a computer system. We set out to improve patient handoffs using a three-pronged approach: (1) determine current limitations and shortcomings of patient handoffs, (2) develop an ideal handoff, and (3) test the new handoff comparing subjective and objective quality measures.

Utilizing a focus group of residents and surgical staff to determine current limitations as well as the ideal handoff, everyone agreed that patients should be discussed based on acuity — communication of events and plans of the sickest patients should occur first. This should be followed by in-depth discussion of the newest admissions, then changes to the current patients. Finally, a task review for the on-coming shift would be reviewed in top-down fashion. We developed a mnemonic, PACT (Priority, Admissions, Changes, Task review), to help our residents remember this discussion based on acuity.

Measuring pre- and post-PACT implementation, we found that with PACT implementation, residents had lower incidence of incomplete tasks and lack of patient knowledge on morning rounds, decreased discrepancy between junior and senior handoffs, and senior residents reported junior residents were better able to handle emergencies.

We were encouraged by our findings, but in true reflective fashion, thought we could further improve our handoffs. One limitation we found was that there were considerable interruptions during the handoff process. Additionally, we found that although residents were discussing the PACT content, they preferred to discuss patients based on list order – organized by patient location – rather than true acuity. Achieving complete buy-in to the new process has not been without resistance, even though our outcomes were excellent with improved handoff practices. As a result, we developed a second iteration of the handoff process (PACT 2.0) to address these limitations, and we are testing it head-to-head with our current PACT system, in a randomized controlled trial. We are currently analyzing the results and hope to report soon on our outcomes.

As a previous research resident and now third-year clinical resident, I have witnessed the junior residents transfer care of their patients with improved communication and feel confident that the night float residents have better knowledge of the patients on their census as a result of the work we have done so far. We introduced the PACT handoff system to our interns at orientation this past year and intend to do so again when they show up in late June. I feel privileged that through a unique grant opportunity at my institution, we were able to review our handoff process and ask ourselves not only what we could do differently, but also, were able to institute change.

Our experience has made me curious: How does your program do handoffs? Do you do handoff training?


Nicole Tapia, MD, is a general surgery resident in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, currently in her third clinical year. She recently completed two years of research, focusing on trauma and resident education. Nicole hopes to be a trauma surgeon at an affiliated academic center, where she can work with residents and medical students.

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