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Quality and safety of hospital discharge: a study on experiences and perceptions of patients, relatives and care providers

Gijs Hesselink , Lisette Schoonhoven , Marieke Plas , Hub Wollersheim , Myrra Vernooij-Dassen
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/mzs066 66-74 First published online: 26 November 2012


Objective To identify barriers experienced and perceived at discharge by physicians, nurses, patients and relatives.

Design We developed questionnaires based on focus group interviews with hospital and community care providers, and individual interviews with patients and relatives. A survey was conducted among patients, relatives and related nurses and physicians from hospital and community care.

Setting One university hospital and the related community care area in the Netherlands.

Participants Thirty health-care providers and eight patients and/or relatives participated in focus group and individual interviews. Questionnaires were returned by 344 health-care providers and 206 patients and relatives.

Results Information from the hospital to community care is often incomplete, unclear and delayed. Especially hospital physicians (52%) and general practitioners (GPs; 63%) experience the quality of information exchanged from the hospital to the GP as poor. Coordination of care is often frustrated by a lack of care provider knowledge and collaboration. Hospital physicians (47%) and GPs (71%) feel that hospital physicians are often not sufficiently aware of the patient's home situation. Respectively, 59 and 81% experience that the GP is often not clearly informed about expected tasks and responsibilities at discharge.

Conclusions This is the first study that provides a clear picture of the experiences and perceptions of stakeholders regarding handovers at hospital discharge. Lack of knowledge, understanding and interest between hospital and community care providers are important causes for ineffective and unsafe discharge. The study suggests that improvement efforts should be focused more on these aspects, as primary conditions for improving hospital discharge.

  • hospital discharge
  • handover
  • continuity of care
  • barriers


Hospitals have a responsibility to ensure that patients are discharged from hospital care in a safe and efficient manner [1]. This is becoming increasingly important, considering the trend towards shorter hospital stays and more care in the community [2], and the rising number of high-risk and elderly patients, who require more frequent and complex transitions [3]. Despite the growing interest in the quality and safety of hospital discharge, research has shown that a variety of adverse events frequently occur in the handover of care, affecting patients after discharge from the hospital. In most cases these adverse events could have been avoided [4, 5]. In addition, these adverse events in hospital discharge sometimes result in unnecessary readmissions and lead to a considerable amount of extra costs [6].

These quality and safety problems seem to be related to the continuity of care, which is considered to be a critical aspect for all types of handovers [7]. According to Hellesø, Lorensen and Sorensen [8], continuity of care refers to ‘the formal and informal communication, coordination and structured and unstructured information exchange at an individual and organizational levels’. Studies have identified various discontinuities when care is handed over from the hospital to the community care setting in terms of delayed or absent communication, inaccuracies in information exchange and ineffective planning or coordination of care between care providers [913]. However, in-depth insight into the causes of identified discontinuities in the discharge process is limited. Handover problems in the discharge process are predominantly investigated by exploring the experiences and perceptions of care providers, patients and relatives separately [6, 1316]. Eliciting experiences and perceptions of care providers both in the hospital and community setting, patients, and relatives in the same study could provide a more comprehensive view of and a better insight in the handover process and the factors that hinder continuity of care from hospital to home. Therefore, this study explores every day experiences and beliefs regarding good handover of patients, relatives and care providers involved in discharge.


Data collection

A survey was conducted at the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, a 1000-bed university hospital that serves as a referral centre for a population of ∼2.5 million in the east of the Netherlands. Questionnaires were distributed among stakeholders to assess: (i) how hospital discharge is experienced in daily practice and (ii) what is perceived to be important in the handover process at discharge. The size and content of the questionnaires differed for each type of stakeholder. Each questionnaire consisted of general questions (varying between 14 and 27 questions) and a set of statements to address everyday experiences (varying between 13 and 32 statements) with, and beliefs (varying between 13 and 23 statements) about good handover at hospital discharge. The questionnaire was tested by heads of several clinical departments in a pre-final version, thereby increasing content validity. Statements were answered on a six-point Likert scale ranging from ‘totally disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’. Questionnaires (n = 990) were distributed among 198 discharge cases. All patients from nine departments (Geriatrics, Internal Medicine, two Surgery departments, Paediatrics, Oncology, Urology, Gynaecology and Neurology) with a set discharge date received a questionnaire along with their relatives and their related hospital physicians, nurses and general practitioners (GPs). Patients were excluded if they or their relatives were physically or mentally not able to fill in the questionnaire. Questionnaires were distributed at the time of the patient's discharge, in a period of 3 months (June–August 2005). Reminder letters were sent after 1 month.

The questionnaire was based on focus group interviews and individual in-depth interviews. A focus group is a form of group interview that capitalizes the interaction between the participants in order to generate data. The idea behind the focus group method is that group processes can help people to explore and clarify their views in ways that would be less easily accessible in a one-to-one interview [17]. A total of four focus group interviews were organized with hospital physicians (n = 5), hospital nurses (n = 10), GPs (n = 5) and community nurses (n = 10). We used purposive sampling to ensure diversity of care providers with respect to age, gender, experiences and attitude towards hospital discharge. Letters of invitation were initially sent to hospital wards as well as to GP- and homecare associations, who were subsequently asked to recruit participants. Hospital physicians and nurses were sampled from eight wards including Internal Medicine, Surgery, Oncology, Gynaecology, Paediatrics and Geriatrics. Groups were organized based on their type of profession in order to elicit the dominant perspectives that exist within each profession. Eight individual in-depth interviews were conducted with patients and/or relatives after discharge at home, because several patients had been recently discharged from the hospital and were not able to travel to a focus group meeting. Patients and/or relatives were selected from the transitional care unit of the hospital (for patients receiving homecare) and from nursing departments (for patients not receiving homecare). We used purposive sampling to ensure diversity of patients (i.e. age, gender, diagnosis). To diminish recall problems, the interviews were planned in a short period (between 1 and 3 weeks) after actual discharge from the hospital. All focus group and individual interviews were facilitated by a guide with open-ended questions, based on topics derived from a literature study. The topics focused on the experiences with and perceptions on: the information exchange, the coordination of care and the communication between hospital and community care providers and between care providers and patients and relatives in the discharge process. Interviews were audio-taped with the participants' consent. Formal approval for the study was given by the board of directors of the university medical centre. The local ethics committee was consulted by telephone. Since the patients involved in this study would not be subjected to interventions, the ethics committee decided it was not necessary to formally submit the proposal for an ethical decision. According to the Dutch law this does not exempt from asking informed consent from each individual participant, which we did.

Data analysis

Quantitative data were analysed using SPSS 16.0 for Windows (SPSS, Inc., 1993). The responses to the statements, addressing everyday experiences with and beliefs about good handover, were dichotomized per item as ‘disagree’ from 1 to 3 and ‘agree’ from 4 to 6. We calculated the percentages of ‘agree’ responses and performed logistic regression analyses to test whether each respondent group's percentage agreeing differs significantly from the average percentage agreeing of the other respondent groups combined. Statistical significance was set at P < 0.05 and high significance at P < 0.001.

All recorded focus group interviews were transcribed verbatim and individual interviews were summarized for analysis. Systematic content analysis [18] was performed by two researchers (M.P. and G.H.). Emerging themes were developed by a repeated study of the transcripts and the attribution of codes to text segments. Codes referring to the same phenomenon were grouped in categories, and categories were grouped in themes.


Of the total of 990 distributed questionnaires, 550 were returned (56%). The response rate varied per type of stakeholder: 84% for hospital nurses (n = 167), 52% for hospital physicians (n = 103), 37% for GPs (n = 74), 54% for patients (n = 107) and 50% for relatives (n = 99). Questionnaires that were distributed in the Paediatrics Department were filled in by the patients' parents. Table 1 shows the patient characteristics. Hospital nurses, patients and relatives experience the quality of handover practice at hospital discharge as moderate to very positive. In contrast, the experiences of hospital physicians and GPs with handovers at hospital discharge are less positive. The most important findings are presented in Tables 2 and 3, and will be discussed in more detail below. Table 4 provides an overview of the survey topics and wording variation of the items per stakeholder group.

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Table 1

Respondent characteristics

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Table 2

Experiences with handover at discharge (most important findings per topic area)a

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Table 3

Perceived importance of handover at discharge (most important findings per topic area)a

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Table 4

Overview of survey topics and wording variation of items per stakeholder group

Experiences with information exchange

The information exchange from the hospital to the GP is experienced as poor. This was particularly the case with regard to the information about (i.e. the use of or instructions on) medication or care support facilities, which are needed in the follow-up treatment after discharge (hospital physicians 52%; GPs 63%), and with regard to the treatment that patients received at the hospital (patients 46%; relatives 42%). The experiences of care providers and patients mentioned in the interviews correspond with these findings. Interviewed GPs and community nurses often experience that important discharge information is missing. A few patients also mentioned experiences with community nurses, who were not fully up-to-date on their medical status and hospital treatment. Consequently, they had to inform the community nurse themselves extensively during their first visit. A community nurse confirmed these experiences: ‘Often our clients return to home and there is nothing written by hospital physicians and other care providers about “we did this and that’. Then we have to call back to the hospital again”.

Hospital physicians (43%), GPs (49%), patients (45%) and relatives (55%) also indicate that the information for the GP about treatment in the hospital is not received on time. Many of the interviewed GPs experience difficulties in providing adequate care after discharge, because of this information delay. According to them, it may take months before they receive a final discharge letter and this could increase the chance of adverse medical consequences. Several GPs also referred to situations where they had to deal with an upset patient because they did not contact or visit the patient after discharge, while the GP was not aware of the patients' discharge.

Shortcomings were also indicated in the quality of information from the hospital to the patients. Hospital physicians (42%), GPs (57%) and hospital nurses (37%) indicate that patients are often not informed clearly enough, in particular about the required follow-up treatment, medication and care facilities. In the interviews patients expressed that they did not know what exactly was going to happen after discharge, whether or not their GP had been informed by the hospital about their discharge, and who they should contact in case of any questions. In some cases this created uncertainty and anxiety in patients on how to deal with their health issues.

Experiences with the coordination of care

In contrast to the other stakeholders, 47% of the hospital physicians and 71% of the GPs experience that the hospital often has insufficient knowledge about the patient's home situation. The experiences of the hospital physicians and GPs on this matter differ from the experiences of the other respondents combined (P < 0.001). According to 58% of the GPs, the hospital is also unfamiliar with the care process after discharge. These experiences of the GPs differ from the experiences of hospital care providers (P < 0.05). According to interviewed GPs, this lack of knowledge forms a barrier for proper coordination of care. One GP illustrated this using the delegation of certain medical actions (e.g. intravenous treatment) from the GP to the community nurses as an example. GPs are often unable to organize intravenous treatment by nurses, because the hospital physician did not inform them in time about discharge. Hospital physicians are unaware of the delegation procedure, thereby letting the chance slip away to coordinate aftercare more effectively. Some GPs also indicate that hospital physicians are not informed of the consequences of ineffective discharge, since problems eventually pop up in the community care setting, which is mostly out of their sight. I think hospital physicians should be more aware of how many things go wrong and eventually end up on our plate. Things that we then repair and correct without them knowing, without them ever even hearing about it. (…) So many things go wrong, which we solve in the patient's interest, that they do not realize enough how extensive the problem really is.

Although many hospital nurses indicated that they had sufficient insight of the patient's home situation (86%) and the patient's follow-up after hospital discharge (90%), hospital nurses in the focus group interview expressed often being unfamiliar with the necessity to arrange proper follow-up. For example, it is often believed that a new health and social care assessment is not necessary, when a patient received homecare before as well. However, once at home, it turns out that patients do need a new care assessment in order to start with adequate homecare on time. Also, some hospital nurses indicated that they often do not know the exact potential of homecare (e.g. community nurses and relatives). The problems that we often have is that you do not always know which care can actually be offered at home and by whom. That is not always clear, sometimes more than at other times …

Another source for problems in coordinating care at discharge seems to be the lack of collaboration between hospital and community care providers. Both hospital physicians (59%) and GPs (81%) point out that the GP is often not clearly informed about the tasks and responsibilities that are expected from him/her after discharge. Significantly more GPs perceive this lack of collaboration (81%) than hospital physicians and nurses combined (P < 0.001). According to 90% of the GPs there is insufficient discussion about the allocation of responsibilities in the patient's follow-up after discharge. One GP illustrated this as follows: Who does what … because that is also important and that is often unclear in discharge letters. It (the discharge letter) often says: “Potassium needs to be checked once in a while’. And then I think: ‘by whom … by me or the hospital physician’? These things really make me sick! (…) I expect more clarity in the letters about what they do in order to avoid duplication of work.

Several interviewed GPs and hospital physicians also experienced that the focus of the hospital is rather more on fulfilling their own specific tasks and responsibilities. They sensed a reluctance of hospital physicians to handover care or relevant information to the GP at discharge. ‘I think we tend to keep care in our own hands … with us in the hospital. (…) Well, by doing that you keep the GP uninformed. (…) The thing is that the GP gets involved at later stage, so he misses a part of the care process. I think that is a problem.

Moreover, interviewed GPs feel underestimated in their knowledge and skills by hospital physicians and see this as a major explanation for the latter's lack of effort to collaborate at handover. For example, one GP stated that a hospital physician would have called him in time about a patient-discharge if he had been regarded as a respectable professional fellow. Community nurses seem to encounter a lack of understanding and respect as well. They sometimes have the impression that their colleagues at the hospital are not very interested in the continuity of care after discharge and that they distance themselves from any involvement. But I think, well, you know, I do not have any evidence but I do get the impression that they look at us as something that is less trustworthy or competent than their own profession.

Experiences with communication

GPs indicate that they are easily accessible for the hospital physician, before and after discharge. However, reaching the right contact person at the hospital in case of questions after discharge is more difficult. Hospital physicians (49%) and GPs (42%) indicate that it is often not (made) very clear for GPs who to call for. Many GPs feel the need for quicker and more frequent contact when their involvement is needed (e.g. in case of important changes in the patient's condition or when important decisions have to be made, for example in the case of euthanasia).

Community nurses expressed that discharge communication with their colleagues in the hospital is frustrated by the many indirect lines. Despite the fact that the presence of a liaison nurse reduces the workload for hospital nurses at discharge, it also increases the communication gap with caregivers in the community. A community nurse said: I often miss the personal contact. Handover runs via different communication lines and that costs us a lot of time. (…) I miss the old day when you were able to quickly discuss (with the responsible hospital nurse) the situation at the hospital, at home and decided about follow-up.

Hospital nurses recognize that they have less direct contact with community nurses nowadays, which makes it hard to exchange relevant information quickly and effectively. Furthermore, they often do not know whether the requested homecare has been applied. Therefore, more direct and personal contact between hospital and community nurses would, in their eyes, contribute to the continuity of care from hospital to home.

Perceptions on a good handover at discharge

According to the stakeholders, a good handover at hospital discharge must reach up to a variety of standards regarding quality of information exchange, coordination of care and communication. The most important scores from the questionnaire are presented in Table 3. In general, all stakeholders agree that information from the hospital to community care, and to patients and relatives, needs to be sufficient, understandable and on time. Hospital physicians (84%) and GPs (95%) believe that hospital physicians should inform the GP about the medication and/or care support the patient needs after discharge. GPs (94%), patients (95%) and relatives (98%) agree that the hospital needs to inform the GP well about the patient's hospital treatment. Significantly less hospital physicians (64%) agreed that it is important that GPs are well informed about the patient's hospital treatment than GPs, patients and relatives combined (P < 0.001).

Hospital physicians (96%) and GPs (97%) think that hospital physicians should give the patient sufficient and accurate information regarding medication and/or care support after discharge. Eighty-one percent of the hospital physicians and 85% of the GPs believe that hospital physicians should have sufficient knowledge of the patient's home situation. Furthermore, 99% of the GPs and 78% of the hospital physicians feel that the hospital physician should be clear about which tasks are expected from the GP. Hospital physicians (73%) and GPs (88%) indicate that the same goes for the responsibilities of the hospital physician. Finally, knowing who to contact and accessibility in the hospital for GPs, and vice versa, are considered important by 78% of the hospital physicians and 97% of the GPs.


The aim of this study was to explore the experiences with and beliefs about good handover at hospital discharge of care providers, patients and relatives. Both quantitative and qualitative findings of this study suggest that the continuity of care at hospital discharge is often not guaranteed. The findings revealed that barriers were mainly associated with three themes: the quality of information exchange, the coordination of care and communication between hospital and community care providers. The most important finding is that hospital staff is unacquainted with the care in the community and does not anticipate enough on the needs of the community care providers to continue care after patients have been discharged from the hospital. These conditions primarily seem to originate from a lack of understanding of, and interest in, post-discharge care activities. This is experienced especially by GPs where it concerns hospital physicians. It appears that crucial discharge information, related to patient treatment or illness and about what is expected in terms of tasks and responsibilities, is often incomplete, unclear, delayed or even missed. Moreover, in such cases it often seems to be difficult for community care providers to reach the right contact person at the hospital after discharge to get questions answered (e.g. concerning treatment or illness of the patient). Consequently, this often leads to confusion for GPs, community nurses, patients and relatives and increases the chance of suboptimal follow-up. Despite the experienced barriers in daily practice, all stakeholders perceive the quality of information exchange, coordination of care and communication as valuable factors in handovers at discharge. This demonstrates that all parties involved in the discharge process identify a gap between current and safe discharge practice and the need for improvement.

This study provides novel and valuable insights into the experiences and beliefs of care providers, patients and relatives, and their subsequent behaviour that hinders continuity of care at discharge. Various studies have already shown the discharge problems identified in this study, such as delayed communication and inaccuracies in information transfer among hospital and community care providers [9, 11, 12, 19], described consequences of ineffective discharge [4, 5, 2022], and reported subsequent quality and safety criteria and implications for practice [79, 23]. However, scientific attention to a better understanding of ineffective and unsafe discharge was limited or, in other words, a ‘black box’. We found that many of the identified handover barriers at discharge show a similarity with handover barriers within the hospital or community care setting [2426], and that many of these barriers are caused by a lack of time, professional attitudes and a fragmented handover organization [2731]. This is the first study that addresses a lack of knowledge and understanding between hospital and community care providers, and a lack of effort to anticipate on the needs of the professional counterpart as important causes for discontinuity of care at hospital discharge. The findings of the study were an eye-opener for the board of directors and for many of the health-care providers of the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre. It directly triggered them to develop and implement a protocol to improve the timeliness and quality of discharge information.

Knowledge and understanding between hospital and community care providers, and interest of health-care providers in patient handover are important prerequisites for improving the quality and safety of hospital discharge that need further improvement. The lack of evidence-based handover training and educational programmes [15, 24, 3234] shows there is ample room for improvement in this area, next to the development and implementation of practical tools. Further research in this domain is needed as an important base for quality and safety improvement of handovers [35], especially when it has to be organized across health-care institutions and services where perceptions and meanings often seem to differ.

Our study had several limitations. First of all, community nurses were not included in the quantitative analysis, because not all patients received homecare after hospital discharge. We suggest to include community nurses in future quantitative research, so that differences identified between hospital physicians and GPs can be compared with those between hospital and community nurses. Secondly, as this study was conducted in 2005–06, presented findings might seem less relevant in 2010. However, during these 5 years no fundamental changes in the Dutch health-care system have occurred with regard to the organization of hospital discharge. Therefore, we assume that the study still resembles the present experiences and perceptions of stakeholders. Although various studies have reported about discharge inadequacies since our study was performed [9, 14], insight in the underlying causes remained limited. Thirdly, it is possible that statistically significant findings in the quantitative study occurred by chance due to multiple comparisons. These findings should therefore be seen as exploratory and need to be interpreted with caution. Furthermore, the high none-response of GPs to the questionnaire may implicate possible bias of the quantitative results. Finally, the small sample size of individual and focus group interviewees in one university hospital might raise questions about the generalizability of our findings. Nevertheless, the results from the interviews are quite similar to the results from the 652 returned questionnaires. Therefore, these results are believed to provide sufficient insight into the major barriers that are encountered in handovers at hospital discharge, which possibly stimulates further work in this area.




We wish to thank all the care providers, patients and relatives involved in this study for their commitment and interest.


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