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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Simple Changes to Emergency Department Workflow Improve Analgesia in Mechanically Ventilated Patients


Introduction: In 2013 the Society for Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) published guidelines for the management of pain and agitation in the intensive care unit (ICU). These guidelines recommend using an analgesia-first strategy in mechanically ventilated patients as well as reducing the use of benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines increase delirium in ICU patients thereby increasing ICU length of stay. We sought to determine whether a simple educational intervention for emergency department (ED) staff, as well as two simple changes in workflow, would improve adherence to the SCCM guidelines.

Methods: This was a cohort study that took place from 2014-2016. All patients who were intubated in the ED by an emergency physician (EP) during this time were eligible for inclusion in this study. In January 2015, we began an educational campaign with the ED staff consisting of a series of presentations and online trainings. The impetus for our educational campaign was to have best practices in place for our new emergency medicine residency program starting in July 2016. We made two minor changes in our ED workflow to support this educational objective. First, fentanyl infusions were stocked in the ED. Second, we instituted a medication order set for mechanically ventilated patients. This order set nudged EPs to choose medications consistent with the SCCM guidelines. We then evaluated the use of opioids and benzodiazepines in mechanically ventilated patients from 2014 through 2016 using Fisher’s exact test. All analyses were conducted in the overall sample (n=509) as well as in subgroups after excluding patients with seizures/status epilepticus as their primary admission diagnosis (n=461).

Results: In 2014 prior to the interventions, 41% of mechanically ventilated patients received an opioid, either as an intravenous (IV) push or IV infusion. In 2015 immediately after the intervention, 71% of patients received an opioid and 64% received an opioid in 2016. The use of benzodiazepine infusions decreased from 22% in 2014 to 7% in 2015 to 1% in 2016.

Conclusion: A brief educational intervention along with two simple changes in ED workflow can improve compliance with the SCCM guidelines for the management of pain and agitation in mechanically ventilated patients.

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