Is respiratory compromise the new “sepsis”?

Hospitalists can play a key role in prevention


Clinicians and even the general public are aware of the dangers of sepsis, the life-threatening illness caused by a body’s response to an infection. Irrespective of one’s perception of pharmaceutical marketing materials or the evidence-based medicine used, awareness about sepsis has led to earlier diagnosis and interventions that have likely saved countless patients’ lives.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Vender, emeritus Harris Family Foundation chairman of the department of anesthesiology at NorthShore University Health System, Evanston, Ill. He is clinical professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Vender

Moreover, hospitalists have played a key role in sepsis prevention. In their research, “Improving Survival from Sepsis in Noncritical Units: Role of Hospitalists and Sepsis Team in Early Detection and Initial Treatment of Septic Patients,” Adriana Ducci, MD, and her colleagues showed that a hospitalist-managed sepsis protocol improved sepsis case notifications and patient outcomes.

Although sepsis and respiratory compromise are clearly very different conditions, I believe that greater awareness about respiratory compromise will lead to earlier diagnosis and interventions, which will theoretically improve patient outcomes. Moreover, as with the sepsis awareness campaign, hospitalists can play a key role in recognizing respiratory compromise and in the implementation of appropriate interventions.

As defined by the Respiratory Compromise Institute, “respiratory compromise” is defined as a state in which there is a high likelihood of decompensation into respiratory failure and/or death, but, in which specific interventions – be it therapeutic and/or monitoring – might prevent or mitigate this decompensation.

A significant segment of patients who may be at risk for respiratory compromise are those receiving opioids. The cost of opioid-related adverse events, in terms of both human life and hospital expenses, remains at the forefront of the public eye. It has been estimated that yearly costs in the United States associated with opioid-related postoperative respiratory failure were estimated at $2 billion.

Thomas W. Frederickson MD, FACP, SFHM, MBA, the lead author of the Society of Hospital Medicine guide for Reducing Adverse Drug Events Related to Opioids (RADEO), emphasized in a podcast with the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety the need to identify patient conditions that pose a greater risk of respiratory compromise.

In particular, Dr. Frederickson pointed out the need to screen for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): “Patients with obstructive sleep apnea are dependent upon their arousal mechanism in order to avoid respiratory depression and eventual respiratory failure. When these patients receive opioid medication, it decreases this ability for arousal. That puts them at risk for a sudden spiral that includes respiratory insufficiency and respiratory arrest. This can happen very quickly and part of the risk is that the traditional monitoring for sedation that we use in the hospital – that is on a periodic basis and depends upon nursing interventions and questioning – really becomes much less effective in this patient population that can have a respiratory arrest, because of failure to arouse, very quickly. So, a monitoring regimen that takes place every 60 minutes is likely to be ineffective.”

Patient conditions such as OSA should be considered, along with other comorbidities. As the RADEO Guide states: “Before starting opioid therapy, either in surgical or non-surgical settings, it is important to identify any real or potential risks of respiratory depression or other opioid-related adverse effects. Patient comorbidities such as OSA, neurologic disorders, organ impairment, substance abuse history, and other medication use are important aspects to consider.”

Although we have clearly recognized a significant increase in respiratory complications associated with opioid administration, there are other areas, which are non–opioid related, that can create respiratory compromise. We view many patients with stable or underlying respiratory conditions, whether it be COPD, sleep apnea, or preexisting pathophysiology, where either due to sedative agents, or an acute illness – like pneumonia – they can go from a stable condition to respiratory compromise and become at risk for respiratory failure.

A classic example of that in my world of anesthesia has been the well-recognized area of non–operating room anesthesia – in particular, in endoscopy suites where numerous endoscopy procedures are performed under the administration of propofol or other anxiolytic-like drugs. There has been a well-recognized incidence of sentinel events related to oxygenation and ventilation, including death.

Many clinicians see sedation as a benign introduction of relatively limited-effect drugs, which isn’t always true. So, therefore, it is essential that clinicians understand three things:

1. The drugs we employ as sedative agents can have variable effects on individuals depending on their tolerance and their underlying medical condition.

2. The dosages and particular combination of drugs employed may cause an adverse event – for example, the combination of opioids and benzodiazepines.

3. There are factors that can distract from the clinical assessment of routine vital signs, such as respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood pressure. For example, when pulse oximetry is administered with oxygen therapy, there can often be a delay in the recognition of hypoventilation. Consequently, that’s why more and more clinicians are beginning to utilize capnography, or CO2 monitoring, in the expired gas to earlier detect depressed respiratory rate and/or apnea, as well as signs of hypoventilation or inadequate ventilation.

There clearly are obstacles to continuous patient monitoring, such as the associated cost, familiarity with the utilization, the benefit, as well as the limitations of specific monitors in different clinical situations, which mandates an educational process to employ these. However, currently, patient monitoring provides the best early indicator of a patient’s deterioration and the possibility of respiratory compromise.

In my field, we have become very comfortable with capnography and patient monitoring, because for decades it’s been a standard of care for monitoring in the operating room. The role for utilization of capnography for patients who are receiving an opioid or sedative agent outside of the operating room needs to be further assessed. However, technology is not a silver bullet and should be used as an adjunct to clinical judgment in at-risk populations.

Simple recognition and greater awareness of respiratory compromise, just as with sepsis awareness campaigns, will mean more patients are diagnosed earlier, more appropriate interventions are made, and hopefully more adverse events and patient deaths are averted.

Dr. Vender is the emeritus Harris Family Foundation chairman of the department of anesthesiology at NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Ill. He is clinical professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and chairman, Clinical Advisory Committee, Respiratory Compromise Institute. Dr. Vender has consulted with Medtronic.

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