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The weekend effect: now you see it, now you don’t

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 16 May 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2750

Acute care and the weekend effect – A rapid response system focused quality improvement perspective

After listening to a recent podcast on the weekend effect (1) and reading the accompanying editorial (2), we would like to highlight a different perspective on this emotive problem. Adverse clinical outcomes (ACO) such as unanticipated critical care admission, cardiac arrest and death can occur for many reasons. We agree with the initial article response (3) that care of seriously ill patients is suboptimal throughout the week, as demonstrated by significant evidence from national audits, confidential enquiries and research (4-7). Development of quality improvement based solutions to the problem of ACO should therefore be a clinical priority. To do this, clinicians must fully appreciate the system in which care of deteriorating patients is provided, identify and understand sources of variation within the system and pursue a balanced iterative approach to developing, piloting and implementing change.

System: Suboptimal care is difficult to define. However, the final common pathway to ACO is failure to recognise and or rescue deteriorating patients. Rapid response systems (RRS) have essentially evolved from various attempts to optimise quality and safety of care for increasingly complex patients in high capacity and high turnover healthcare settings. Despite widespread implementation of RRS-based care to improve the recognition and resuscitation of seriously ill patients, many hospitalised adults still receive suboptimal care (4-7). Rapid response systems (8) are conceptually relatively simple, with linear afferent and efferent limbs for detection and recognition of deteriorating patients. In reality however they are highly complex and consist of many heterogeneous structural, electronic, paper and human elements. Paper and electronic components serve an array of functions from providing access to information such as laboratory, radiology and other clinical information to alerting healthcare professionals of established clinical abnormality and guiding clinical care. Human components of RRS are equally diverse. Critical and difficult to measure observations are often carried out by non-clinical members of the team and response to alerts by clinical professionals can lead to horizontal zero value consultations between junior clinicians of different specialties. The potential for random error to affect patient outcomes in this system is significant. An increased drive within resuscitation and critical care communities to move away from a focus on treatment of cardiac arrest to preventative strategies (9) highlights the importance of a RRS-based approach to the prevention of ACO from suboptimal care.

Variation: Problems with human performance in the RRS chain of prevention can be rationalised as random variation in unplanned or emergency clinical encounters. Identifying and understanding modifiable antecedents in this chain that could improve RRS performance in preventing of ACO requires detailed retrospective case record review (RCRR). However methodological weaknesses, logistic and economic burden limit use of detailed RCRR (10). Efforts to develop systematic and reproducible RCRR methods focus on identification of avoidable mortality (11, 12) which will potentially limit broader exploration of and learning from suboptimal care. Unpublished results from our on-going quality improvement work at several organisations in recent years suggest that unplanned clinical review is a critical safety link in the RRS chain of ACO prevention. In particular, analysis of case notes repeatedly shows variation in emergency assessments contributes to suboptimal recognition and response to evolving shock during prior to ACO. Assessments with insufficient content, evidence of cognitive bias or error and inadequate contingency planning were recurrent themes in opportunities to improve clinical care. Occasionally, RRS will fail to recognise or respond to a deteriorating patient because the underlying clinical picture was secondary to unusual in pathology or atypical progression. Such special variation is often an important learning opportunity for the system to deal with deviation from expectation without explanation.

Solutions: Improving the quality of care, in general, requires the realisation of three critical concepts: teams must summarise and simplify what to do, measure and provide feedback on performance and build an expectation of performance into the culture of those involved (13). Organisational learning efforts to improve awareness of systemic variation are often obstructed by significant cognitive and cultural barriers (14). Measurement of RRS performance by RCRR is hampered by methodological and logistical challenges. Culture change is something that requires significant input over near geological timescales. Improving acute care skills of frontline individuals and the team with organisational learning using RRS based RCRR is still an important intervention and further work is required on this front. Digital health technology will also have a role in both acute care provision and organisational learning. However, current products do not yet have an open and adaptable clinical information model to support clinical noting tools that provide sufficient ease-of-use and cognitive support at the patient-healthcare professional level. Work in Northern Ireland is currently exploring the use of an accelerated clinical translational informatics approach for the development and testing of open source rapid response based electronic structured exam tool (RESET). A pilot study on high fidelity simulation of medium acuity scenarios demonstrates utility and usability of a paper based structured noting solution as a platform for further development and testing of a digital prototype.

Conclusion: Mortality is a very poor proxy for care quality but there is significant evidence of problems with quality of acute care that should not be ignored. Acute care outcomes will improve if there is more focus on quality improvement approaches that bring demonstrable benefits to patients. Bringing about change that improves quality of acute care is an enormous challenge. To do this, we must fully understand the function of RRS in acute care and underlying contributors to variation within the system. As clinicians it is our responsibility, not just politicians and policymakers (3), to focus more energy and effort on finding ways to provide optimal care, as standard, for every acutely ill patient and less on epidemiological debate.

1. The weekend effect - what research can tell us ( las accessed 24/05/2016). Last accessed on 25th May 2016
2. Mckee M. The weekend effect: Now you see it now you don’t BMJ 2016;353:i2750
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Competing interests: No competing interests

29 May 2016
Alexander Davey
Anaesthetic ST 6
David Holmes Foundation One Doctor Northern Ireland
Norhtern Ireland School of Anaesthesia
51 Upper Malvern Park