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Nurses Dish On Communication Lapses That Harm Patients

Network technology giant Cisco Systems, Inc. invited nurses to offer focus group feedback on a recent study that showed that 92% of nurses believe that communications lapses adversely affect patient safety.  I joined five nurses in a cozy break out room at the HIMSS convention center and asked about their real-life experience with communications lapses in the hospital. Here are the highlights:

1. Technology Isn’t Perfect – although some hospitals have instituted bar code scanners and wireless computers to help to reduce errors, these devices often drop their connections. One nurse said that the devices actually slow down the process of distributing medications, and bypassing the system simply results in a loss of automated medication cross-checking. The devices don’t perform well in the case of an electrical surge, and nurses often waste time finding computers on wheels (affectionately known as “COWs”) that have a full battery.

2. Where’s The Patient? - the group of nurses all agreed that poor coordination of care inside the hospital can harm patients. Some nurses expressed frustration at having proceduralists and radiology teams remove the patients from their rooms without scheduling it with the nurses. They explained that nurses give out medications at specific times, and when the patients are taken to another part of the hospital without their knowledge, then they can’t plan to give them their medications appropriately. Missed doses or missed meals (for patients with diabetes for example) can result in dangerous hypoglycemic episodes, syncope, and various other harms.

3. Where’s The Pharmacist? – easy access to hospital pharmacists is critical for all clinical staff. One nurse relayed the shocking story of a med tech who was unable to get in touch with a hospital pharmacist to confirm I.V. zinc dosing in the NICU, and gave such an overdose that one of the premature babies died.

4. Where’s The Doctor? -during an audience poll at the Cisco booth, most nurses rated physicians as the hardest staff to get a hold of in the hospital setting. There is regular confusion about who’s on call, and there is often no direct line to call the physicians.

5. Where Are The Nurses Aides? – when it comes time to transfer patients (who are often very heavy) or move them in bed, nurses often have no way of finding peers to help them lift the patients safely. This results in wasted time searching for staff to assist, or even worse, can result in low back injury to the staff or patient falls.

6. Language Barriers - when patients are transitioned home from the hospital, they are often given complex instructions for self-care. These instructions are particularly hard to follow for patients whose native tongue is not English. Nurses see many re-admissions based on language-based miscommunications.

7. Decision Support Systems – one of the nurses suggested that a recent study showed that the number one source of clinical information for nurses was their peers. That means that nurses turn to other nurses for educational needs more often than they turn to a textbook or peer-reviewed source of information. Nurses would like to have better access to point-of-care decision support tools for their own educational benefit and the safety of patients.

8. Change of Shift – nurses identified shift changes as a primary source of communication errors. Technology that enables medication reconciliation is critical to safe continuation of inpatient treatment. One nurses said: “shift changes is when all the codes happen.”

And so I asked the nurses what their ideal technology would do for them to help address some of the communications problems that they’re currently having. This is what they’d like their technology to do:

1. All-In-One – nurses don’t want more devices to carry around. They want one simple device that can do everything.

2. Call a code – with one press of the button, the nurses would like the device to contact all staff who should participate in resusscitating a crashing patient.

3. Lab Values – nurses would like the device to alert them of all critical lab values on the patients under their care.

4. Clinical Prompts – nurses would like reminders of clinical tasks remaining for individual patients (e.g. check blood pressure on patient in bed 3)

5. Call and Locate Colleagues – the device should function as a full service cell phone with pre-programmed staff names/numbers and team paging lists

6. Locate Equipment -nurses would like to be able to track and locate wheelchairs, electronic blood pressure cuffs, and other equipment throughout the hospital.

7. Translate Verbal Orders To Written Orders – verbal orders are more prone to errors than written ones. An ideal device would have a voice recognition system in it that would translate physician orders to text.

Is there such a device on the market today? There are many different devices that have the capability to do some of above, but to my knowledge there is no device that can do it all yet. Companies like Cisco are working hard to provide integrated solutions for nurses – and the Nurse Connect phone is an important first step. What technologies would you recommend to nurses?

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More information about the phone (from press release):

Cisco Nurse Connect is a newly introduced solution that integrates nurse call applications, including Rauland-Borg’s Responder product lines, with Cisco Unified Wireless IP 7925G Phones to deliver nurse call alerts to mobile caregivers.

The Cisco 7925G Phone was specifically designed with the features necessary to support the unique safety and biohazard requirements of hospitals, including a battery that supports up to 13 hours of talk-time, ruggedized and hermetically sealed, and Bluetooth support for hands-free use.

The Nurse Connect Solution offers many benefits. For example, by reaching nurses on their mobile devices, the need to continually walk back to nursing stations or patient rooms is greatly reduced. Nurses can also have two-way communications with patients and send immediate requests to different levels of personnel after talking with the patient.


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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