AT ATS 2016

SAN FRANCISCO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) Hospitalized patients who have a change in the medical residents responsible for their care are more likely to die, finds a retrospective cohort study of roughly a quarter million discharges from Veterans Affairs medical centers.

A monthly change in resident care was associated with 9%-20% higher adjusted odds of death during the hospital stay and after discharge, investigators reported in a poster discussion session and press briefing at an international conference of the American Thoracic Society. Analyses suggested that such transitions accounted for 718 additional deaths in the hospital alone during the 6-year study period.

“These are very strong findings,” said Dr. Joshua L. Denson, a fellow in the divisions of pulmonary sciences and critical care medicine at the University of Colorado, Aurora.

The study results represent an important initial step in bringing the problem to light, he said. “Handoffs shift to shift have been looked at, but not this end-of-month, more permanent switching, which I think is a much more substantial transition in care.”

The factors driving the increased mortality are unclear, according to Dr. Denson; however, “when you go on to a new service [as a resident] … you are now responsible for 20 new people all of a sudden that night.” Therefore, these transitions can be a hectic time characterized by reduced communication and inefficient discharges. In addition, the incoming residents lack familiarity with their new patients’ particulars.

“The handoffs are definitely not preventable, so this is something that has to be dealt with,” he maintained. The study’s findings hint at several possible areas for improvement.

None of the 10 residency programs surveyed provided formal education for monthly resident handoffs, focusing instead on handoffs at shift changes, and most programs lacked a standard procedure, with just one requiring that the handoff be done in person. The programs also varied greatly in their staggering of handoffs – separating transitions of interns (first-year residents) and higher-level residents by at least a few days – to minimize impact.

Despite the absence of outcomes data in this area, some hospitals are forging ahead with their own interventions intended to smooth care transitions, Dr. Denson reported. “In at least two hospitals that I’ve worked in, they are implementing what is called a warm handoff,” he explained. “Basically, a resident from the prior rotation comes the next day and rounds with the new team so he can tell them, ‘Oh, this guy looks a little worse today, you may want to watch him,’ or ‘He looks a little better.’ ”

In the study, conducted while Dr. Denson was chief resident at the NYU School of Medicine, he and his colleagues analyzed data from 10 university-affiliated Veterans Affairs hospitals and internal medicine residency programs that provided their residents’ schedules. Analyses were based on a total of 230,701 discharges of adult medical patients between July 2008 and June 2014.

Hospitalized patients were categorized as having a transition in resident care if they were admitted before the date of an end-of-month house staff transition in care and were discharged in the week after it.

In unadjusted analyses, patients who had a transition of care – whether of intern only, resident only, or both – had significantly higher odds of inpatient mortality and of 30-day mortality and 90-day postdischarge mortality, compared with counterparts who did not have the corresponding transition of care.

In adjusted analyses, patients who had an intern transition still had higher odds of in-hospital mortality (odds ratio, 1.14). In addition, patients had persistently elevated odds of 30-day mortality and 90-day postdischarge mortality if they had an intern transition (odds ratios, 1.20 and 1.17, respectively), a resident transition (1.15 and 1.14), or both (1.10 and 1.09).

The findings “suggest possibly a level-of-training effect to these transitions, as it’s the most inexperienced people that have the higher rate of mortality,” noted Dr. Denson, who disclosed that he had no relevant conflicts of interest. “Interns, being the first-years, tend to carry the bulk of the work in most hospitals, which is an interesting paradigm in our organization. And that may be a good explanation for why we are seeing this.”