BACKGROUND Once characterised by remarkable continuity of care by a familiar doctor, patient care today is delivered by multiple physicians with varying degrees of knowledge of the patient. Yet, few trainees learn the potential risks of these transitions and the strategies to improve patient care during handoffs. Little is known regarding the mechanisms by which handoffs affect patient care. RESULTS Building on theoretical constructs from the social sciences and illustrated with a case study of the implementation of a night float service for the inpatient general medicine services at the University of Chicago, a conceptual framework is proposed to describe how handoffs affect both patients and physicians. CONCLUSION Using this conceptual framework, recommendations are made for formal education based on the core competencies of communication and professionalism. Opportunities to educate trainees in acquiring these skills are described in the context of handoffs of patient care.