BMJ Open 2:e000734 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000734
  • Communication
    • Research

Transferring responsibility and accountability in maternity care: clinicians defining their boundaries of practice in relation to clinical handover

  1. Peter Cameron1
  1. 1Centre for Research Excellence in Patient Safety, Department of Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine, The Alfred Centre, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, Caulfield East, Victoria, Australia
  3. 3Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Georgiana S M Chin; Georgiana.Chin{at}, Georgiana.Chin{at}
  • Received 24 January 2012
  • Accepted 12 July 2012
  • Published 4 September 2012


Objective This exploratory study reports on maternity clinicians’ perceptions of transfer of their responsibility and accountability for patients in relation to clinical handover with particular focus transfers of care in birth suite.

Design A qualitative study of semistructured interviews and focus groups of maternity clinicians was undertaken in 2007. De-indentified data were transcribed and coded using the constant comparative method. Multiple themes emerged but only those related to responsibility and accountability are reported in this paper.

Setting One tertiary Australian maternity hospital.

Participants Maternity care midwives, nurses (neonatal, mental health, bed managers) and doctors (obstetric, neontatology, anaesthetics, internal medicine, psychiatry).

Primary outcome measures Primary outcome measures were the perceptions of clinicians of maternity clinical handover.

Results The majority of participants did not automatically connect maternity handover with the transfer of responsibility and accountability. Once introduced to this concept, they agreed that it was one of the roles of clinical handover. They spoke of complete transfer, shared and ongoing responsibility and accountability. When clinicians had direct involvement or extensive clinical knowledge of the patient, blurring of transition of responsibility and accountability sometimes occurred. A lack of ‘ownership’ of a patient and their problems were seen to result in confusion about who was to address the clinical issues of the patient. Personal choice of ongoing responsibility and accountability past the handover communication were described. This enabled the off-going person to rectify an inadequate handover or assist in an emergency when duty clinicians were unavailable.

Conclusions There is a clear lack of consensus about the transition of responsibility and accountability—this should be explicit at the handover. It is important that on each shift and new workplace environment clinicians agree upon primary role definitions, responsibilities and accountabilities for patients. To provide system resilience, secondary responsibilities may be allocated as required.

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