Advice and development

The importance of delivering a good handover

Laura Slim finds handovers nerve-wracking but is learning to be more confident 

Laura Slim finds handovers nerve-wracking but is learning to be more confident

Picture: iStock

I am a mental health nursing student in my second year of training and am currently on placement on an older people’s acute mental health ward. The ward has 14 patients and information about every patient is handed over at the end of each shift by one of the nurses.

The information delivered during handover consists of how the patient has been recently, in terms of both their mental and physical health, as well as any outstanding tasks that need to be completed and any important meetings or appointments booked for that day or the near future.

An essential communication skill

Providing a good handover is an essential communication skill for nurses. Handovers are vital in maintaining patient safety and providing quality care, which is why they can be a stressful experience for nursing students.

Before this placement, I had only delivered handover once before. I have now done it twice during this placement, under supervision of a qualified nurse, and despite both these experiences going well, I still dread handing over as I find it so nerve-wracking. I know I’m not the only nursing student who finds this a daunting experience.  

What are we afraid of?

So why is handover so scary for students? Each time we start a clinical placement, we are joining a new team and it can take a while to get to know everybody. I don’t always feel comfortable presenting handover to new people, but as I get further into the placement and get to know people better, it is becoming easier.

I worry about forgetting something and not handing over all the important information I need to, which could compromise patient care. Even though this has not happened to me, there is always that worry in the back of my mind. I get anxious about not being able to answer questions in enough depth from nurses on the on-coming shift when discussing a patient’s condition.

What I do to help myself

Developing strategies to ease my anxieties about giving handover has been very useful for me. One thing that helps me feel more prepared is to have clear notes that are easy to read. My handwriting can be a bit messy if I am in a hurry, so I try to re-write my notes before the handover. This is especially helpful during morning handovers, where we only have 30-minute time slots allocated.  

If I haven’t been on shift for a few days, reading through my patients’ notes is useful. This helps me to familiarise myself with how the patient has been while I’ve been off, and make sure I am up to speed with any treatments or investigations the patient may have had.

The ward I am on at the moment has a handover file with a document detailing useful information about the patient, such as whether they were admitted voluntarily or are being detained under the Mental Health Act, their current risk level and dates of important meetings.

‘There is no training for handovers – they are a learn-on-the-job kind of thing’

The documents, or sheets, are constantly updated and I have found them a useful tool when giving handover. When discussing each patient, staff read from the handover sheet and then add information from their own notes.

7 ways to get better at handover

  • Be punctual – there is often a limited time in which to give handover so being on time is vital
  • Ensure handover sheets are kept up to date
  • Be organised, have your notes ready and ensure they are clear. This will avoid confusion and help the handover run more smoothly
  • Prioritise the most important information and avoid repetition. Think about what team members need to know and avoid repeating any information they already have
  • Find a quiet space to calm your nerves and go over your notes before handover, if you can
  • Make sure you give the handover in a place where you won’t be disturbed or distracted because interruptions could lead to information being missed
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you are unsure about something

Patient safety

Although giving handover can be a nerve-wracking experience, it is so important to our patients that we get it right. Handovers are an essential part of communication and help ensure everyone in the team knows exactly what is going on.

An accurate handover is also vital in ensuring patient safety – if important medical information is not shared properly, errors could occur and patients may be put in danger. Knowing you have handed over all the relevant information stops you from going home feeling stressed, realising you have forgotten to mention something important.

The value of feedback and experience

It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to more experienced nursing staff, but there is no training for handovers – they are a learn-on-the-job kind of thing – and comparing yourself to others will only knock your confidence.

You can always ask for feedback from your mentor or other staff members after you have given handover to see if there are any areas you could improve on, but the best way to become comfortable and competent at giving handover is experience. I try to remind myself of this, and that the more experience I gain, the easier handovers will become.

Laura Slim is a third-year mental health nursing student at the University of Plymouth 

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