Screening adult patients with a tracheostomy tube for dysphagia: a mixed-methods study of practice in the UK

Ginnelly, Aeron and Greenwood, Nan (2016) Screening adult patients with a tracheostomy tube for dysphagia: a mixed-methods study of practice in the UK. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 51(3), p. 285. ISSN (print) 1368-2822


Background: Patients with tracheostomy tubes are at risk of aspiration and swallowing problems (dysphagia) and because of their medical acuity, complications in this patient population can be severe. It is well recognised that swallow screening in stroke significantly reduces potential complications by allowing early identification and appropriate management of patients at risk (by health professionals), thereby reducing delays in commencing oral intake and preventing unnecessary, costly interventions by speech and language therapists (SLTs). However, there is no standardised swallow screen for the tracheostomised population and there is a paucity of literature regarding either current or best practice in this area. Aims: The aim of this study was therefore to investigate current United Kingdom (UK) practice for swallow (dysphagia) screening for adult patients with tracheostomy tubes and to explore and describe health professionals’ perceptions of their current practice/current systems used. Methods and Procedures: A mixed methods approach was adopted, comprising a semi-structured online questionnaire and recorded follow-up telephone interviews. Participants were SLTs, nurses and physiotherapists working with patients with tracheostomies. Responses were analysed to determine current practice with regard to swallow screening. Thematic analysis of interviews allowed further exploration and clarification of the questionnaire findings. Outcomes and Results: Two-hundred and twenty one questionnaires were completed. Approximately half (45%) of the participants worked in trusts with formal swallow screens, whilst the remainder used a variety of other approaches to identify patients at risk, often relying on informal links with multidisciplinary teams (MDT). In line with current evidence, patients with neurological diagnoses and a tracheostomy were consistently referred directly to speech and language therapy. Only a quarter of questionnaire participants thought their current system was effective at identifying patients at risk of swallowing problems. Eleven questionnaire participants were interviewed. They highlighted the important role of MDT team working here, emphasising both its strengths and weaknesses when working with these patients. Conclusions and Implications: Current practice in the UK for screening patients with a tracheostomy for swallow problems is varied and often sub-optimal. Despite the evidence base for enhancing outcomes, MDT working is still perceived as problematic. A swallow screening tool for use with this population, to enhance MDT working and ensuring that practice fits in line with current evidence, may improve patient safety and care.

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