Addressing The Joint Commission's Concern About Opioid-Induced Respiratory Depression


The recent article by Susan Kreimer, “Serious Complications from Opioid Overuse in Hospitalized Patients Prompts Nationwide Alert” (February 2013, p. 34) highlights a very important patient safety issue—opioid-induced respiratory depression.

Post-operative patients often manage their pain with patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pumps. An estimated 14 million patients use PCA annually.1 As the article points out, PCA “offers built-in safety features—if patients become too sedated, they can’t push a button for extra doses—but that isn’t always the case.”

As Dr. Jason McKeown says, “While PCA may be the safest mode of opioid delivery, it is true that regardless of the route of administration, respiratory depression may still occur. To help prevent such incidents from happening, it should be remembered that some of the most significant strides in medicine and surgery are directly attributable to anesthesiology’s advances in patient monitoring.”

With the goal of helping to reduce adverse events and deaths with PCA pumps, the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety (PPAHS) recently released a safety checklist that reminds caregivers of the essential steps needed to be taken to initiate PCA with a patient, and to continue to assess that patient’s use of PCA. This checklist was developed after consultation with a group of 19 renowned health experts and is a free download at www.ppahs.org.

The checklist provides five recommended steps to have been completed when initiating PCA:

  1. Risk factors that increase risk of respiratory depression have been considered.
  2. Pre-procedural cognitive assessment has determined patient is capable of participating in pain management.

    However, it should be noted that these first two steps are not an attempt at risk stratification. In reviewing current approaches to address failure-to-rescue, Dr. Andreas Taenzer and his colleagues showed that these current approaches are not able to predict which patients are at risk and at which point the crisis can be detected.

  3. Patient has been provided with information on proper patient use of PCA pump (other recipients of information—family/visitors) and purpose of monitoring.

    The Institute for Safe Medical Practice (www.ismp.org) cautions against PCA proxy and stresses the importance of patient education. The safe use of PCA includes making sure the patient controlling the device actually knows how to use it and the importance of the monitoring used to continuously assess their status.

  4. Two health-care providers have independently double-checked: patient ID; allergies; drug selection and concentration; dosage adjustments; pump settings; and line attachment to patient and tubing insertion.

    Error prevention is critical. The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority recently released its analysis of medication errors and adverse drug reactions involving intravenous fentanyl that were reported to them. Researchers found 2,319 events between June 2004 to March 2012; that’s almost 25 events per month. Although one error a day may seem high, their analysis is confined to reports that were made to the authority and only include fentanyl, a potent, synthetic narcotic analgesic with a rapid onset and short duration of action.

  5. Patient is electronically monitored with both pulse oximetry and capnography.

    As Dr. Robert Stoelting, president of the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation, recently stated: “The conclusions and recommendations of APSF are that intermittent ‘spot checks’ of [pulse oximetry] and ventilation are not adequate for reliably recognizing clinically significant, evolving, drug-induced, respiratory depression in the postoperative period....APSF recommends that monitoring be continuous and not intermittent, and that continuous electronic monitoring with both pulse oximetry for oxygenation and capnography for the adequacy of ventilation be considered for all patients.”

Frank Federico, a member of the Patient Safety Advisory Group at The Joint Commission and executive director at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, concurs: “Although nurse spot checks on patients are advisable, pulse oximetry and capnography are essential risk prevention tools in any pain management plan.”

PPAHS encourages all hospitals and health-care facilities to download and utilize the PCA Safety Checklist.

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