Detection and management of the deteriorating ward patient: an evaluation of nursing practice

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Aims and objectives.

To audit ward nursing practice in the adherence to an early warning scoring protocol in the detection and initial management of the deteriorating ward patient and investigate factors that may impact on practice.


Hospital inpatients can experience unexpected physiological deterioration leading to poor outcomes and death. Although deterioration can be signalled in the patients' physiological symptoms, evidence suggests that ward staff can miss, misinterpret or mismanage the signs. Rapid response systems have been implemented to address this problem. The rapid response systems consists of two phases: the afferent phase involves monitoring the patient, recognising deterioration and referring to more expert help and the efferent phase involves expert teams assessing and treating the patient. Research has tended to concentrate on the efferent phase of the process and has so far failed to show a significant impact on patient outcome.


Using cardiac arrest as a surrogate marker for deterioration, patient records were retrospectively reviewed during the 12 hours prior to the cardiac arrest event. Data relating to nursing practice and adherence to the early warning scoring protocol were extracted and analysed.


The findings suggest that ward nurses' monitoring of patients' observations has improved compared with earlier research, but errors in early warning scoring and nonadherence to referral protocols are still a problem. A number of potentially influential factors on nursing practice were tested, but only deterioration occurring outside normal weekdays was associated with a reduced quality of nursing adherence to protocol.


The implementation of rapid response systems may have been an oversimplified solution to the highly complex problem of undetected patient deterioration. There are a multitude of contributory factors to the problem of noncompliance to early warning scoring protocols, and possible solutions will need to reflect the breadth, depth and complexity of the problem if we are to improve patient experience and outcome.

Relevance to clinical practice.

An audit of nursing practice against an early warning scoring protocol based on national recommendations and standards in the recording of and response to physiological deterioration in the ward patient has shown that vital signs recording has improved, but early warning scoring accuracy and referral to more expert help remain suboptimal. By identifying areas of suboptimal practice, strategies for education and training and service development can be better informed. More in-depth evidence on factors that may impact the quality of nursing practice has been identified. Problems with rapid response systems assumptions have been highlighted, which may facilitate the implementation of more realistic solutions for managing the deteriorating ward patient.

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