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The Value of Warm Handoffs

Handoffs can occur within your practice and can strengthen patient relationships and make a difference in the level of care provided to patients.

In the healthcare world, handoffs can play a critical role in patient safety. Typically, warm handoffs are those instances when patient responsibility transfers from one healthcare provider to another. Most providers think of these as instances when they are referring a patient to a specialist or other individual outside the practice.

However, handoffs can occur within your practice and can strengthen patient relationships and make a difference in the level of care provided to patients.

Warm Handoff Scenarios

In many practices, a medical assistant takes the vital signs, confirms the patient’s identity and reason for the visit.  The medical assistant then has the opportunity to perform a handoff to the healthcare provider.  This type of handoff is referred to as a “warm” handoff.

A warm handoff is speaking face-to-face with the next healthcare provider in front of the patient, confirming what was learned so the patient can confirm or correct any misunderstanding.

Imagine this scenario: 

You visit your primary care provider and the medical assistant does the following:

  • Confirms your identity
  • Verifies why you are there for the visit
  • Takes your vital signs
  • Inputs the information into the record
  • Leaves the room telling you the provider will see you shortly 

Now, imagine this:

Rather than leaving the room, the medical assistant stays and chats with you until the provider arrives.  When the provider arrives, the medical assistant summarizes your vital signs, reiterates what was said about the reason for the visit and any other pertinent details from your conversation and all the while you are listening to this discourse, having the opportunity to clarify, add to or correct the information.  The provider can then dismiss the assistant and continue the discussion with you private and complete the visit.

Another opportunity for a warm handoff is when the patient is finished with the appointment and is getting ready to leave.  Rather than the patient leaving the exam area alone, the medical assistant returns and, in the privacy of the exam area, asks open ended questions regarding:

  • Any additional questions about the care provided during the visit
  • What can be done further for them at this time
  • What to expect in the future (what to do if there are problems, what to look for, etc.).

The medical assistant can walk with the patient to their next stop (i.e. scheduling, billing, lab, etc.) to introduce the patient to that individual, reiterate what that person is going to do, such as:

  • Schedule the next visit
  • Set up a referral
  • Take care of any billing details

Warm handoffs may not be practical for every patient; however, for new patients, those needing a little TLC or those you consider VIPS, a warm handoff can be perceived as the difference between good care and outstanding care by engaging the patient and enhancing the experience.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has support material for warm handoffs and the reasons for its importance.  Free tools include a video demonstrating the technique, patient brochures, handouts and checklists for clinicians.  You can see and read more here:

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