Alcohol withdrawal management in adult patients in a high acuity medical surgical transitional care unit: a best practice implementation project

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Excessive alcohol consumption, a major health problem worldwide, affects about 6% of the United States population. Caring for patients with alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) in a hospital ward presents complex physiologic and psycho-social challenges which are best met with evidence-based practices. An academic medical center in the United States has been experiencing an increase in patients with AWS. However, gaps in clinician knowledge and infrastructure supporting the management of these patients still existed.


The aim of this project was to improve the continuity of care of patients undergoing alcohol withdrawal in a medical surgical high acuity transitional care unit by incorporating evidence-based practices, and thereby to positively impact on patient outcomes. Specific objectives were related to standardized assessments and pharmacologic management strategies.


The project used the Joanna Briggs Institute's Practical Application of Clinical Evidence System (PACES) and Getting Research into Practice (GRiP) audit tool for promoting change in health practice. A baseline clinical audit was conducted to assess compliance with best practices for managing AWS, which was followed by several interventions targeted at nurses and providers. A follow-up audit was conducted to assess compliance with the implemented strategies. The follow-up audit used the same evidence-based audit criteria as those used for the baseline audit. A non-probabilistic, convenience sampling approach was used. A sample size of 15 patients was used for both the baseline and follow-up audits.


The baseline audit revealed a high compliance rate for four of the five audit criteria concerning risk assessment and pharmacologic strategies. There was sub-optimal compliance (53%) with the criterion regarding use of the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment of Alcohol Scale (revised) (CIWA-Ar) scale to assess patients with alcohol withdrawal. After the interventions were implemented this criterion recorded an improvement to 100% compliance. None of the patients in the pilot were transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU) for reasons relating to alcohol withdrawal.


The outcomes of this project demonstrated alcohol withdrawal management can be safely undertaken outside the ICU when the patients are appropriately assessed and treated for the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. This new clinical program significantly impacted on continuity of care. Challenges were resolved using an interdisciplinary team approach. The project resulted in plans for further areas of work concerning alcohol withdrawal management, including adoption of similar approaches by other acute and transitional care units.

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