Cardiology, Inside Pediatrics

Improving Quality and Outcomes in Cardiology

Ashley Moellinger, RN, CRNP, Cardiovascular Services, Children's of Alabama

Ashley Moellinger, RN, CRNP, Cardiovascular Services, Children’s of Alabama

Children’s of Alabama is deeply committed to continual improvement in every part of the care pathway. Two quality-improvement projects in cardiology are already showing the results.

Handoff of Care

Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.[1] The Joint Commission reports that two-thirds of serious medical errors, or “sentinel events,” are tied to poor communication, and half involve communication during care handoff, such as when a patient is transferred from the intensive care unit (ICU) to surgery or back.[2]

The handoff is an important faultline for miscommunication that can lead to patient harm, said Children’s of Alabama cardiovascular intensivist Hayden Zaccagni, M.D. It’s not just communication between the intensivist and the surgeon; it involves the pediatric anesthesiologist, bedside and surgical nurses, advanced practice practitioners, and respiratory therapists.

“It’s a big team that cares for these patients,” Dr. Zaccagni said. Research shows that standardizing the handoff from the ICU to the operating room increases communication without delaying surgery and increased provider satisfaction and patient readiness for surgery while reducing errors.[3],[4]

The cardiology service didn’t have standardized protocol for handoffs, so Dr. Zaccagni, together with Ashley Moellinger, RN, CRNP, leda quality-improvement (QI) project to develop a process that prioritized clear, concise, and consistent communication from the cardiac ICU to the operating room or catheterization lab.

They started with a survey of 82 staff members, which found that 69 percent had experienced a safety event related to inadequate handoff. The survey also showed that communication was the primary barrier to transition followed by organizational barriers.

The team developed a tool and process for handoffs that involved all clinicians who interacted with the patient. “This multidisciplinary approach is so important,” said Moellinger.

Now, the night prior to surgery, the nurse practitioner, bedside nurse, and respiratory therapist complete a data form on the patient. The next day, the entire team meets at the bedside to review the form and bring up any concerns. “A big part of this is around situational awareness, or concerns we have about the patient that might not be obvious from reading through the chart or notes,” said Moellinger.When the patient is transferred, the team verbally goes through the tool again to ensure there are no outstanding questions or changes in condition.

The team is also tracking what it calls “moments of clarity”—when the process unveiled a potentially problematic issue such as a difficult airway, unavailability of vasoactive drip, patient cardiac arrest the prior night, or airway management for a patient with worsening oxygen levels.

The goal, or “smart aim,” was to demonstrate a standardized handoff in 80 percent of transition interactions, with 80 percent completion of patient data points by December 2021, and 95 percent compliance by July 2022.

Reintervention Reduction

This reintervention reduction QI project focuses on the most complex cardiothoracic surgery performed in newborns. Called the Norwood procedure, the surgery involves constructing a new, larger aorta for babies born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Nationally, patients who don’t require an intervention after their surgery have a mortality rate of about 6 percent compared to the 26 percent mortality rate in those who require another surgery or catheterization procedure.

The project, which is part of the National Pediatric Cardiac Quality Improvement Collaborative, was designed to understand why reinterventions occurred and identify opportunities to recognize the warning signs early in the post-operative period.

The Children’s team first performed a root-cause analysis of the 69 patients who required additional interventions between January 2015 and June 2020. That involved identifying what triggered the complication and how it could have been prevented. Of the 69 patients, 23 (34 percent) required an unplanned cardiac surgery or catheterization while hospitalized after the first-stage operation. Half of the surgical interventions were to explore unexplained bleeding, and half of the catheterization interventions were for conduit stenting to improve pulmonary blood flow. Fewer than five patients (12.5 percent) who required a reintervention died compared to none in the other group.

Reviewing the entire care pathway from the cardiovascular ICU to the operating room and back, including rates of post-operative bleeding and the timing for administering blood products, “we were essentially able to come up with a solution that we should communicate more effectively between team members in the operating room,” said Dr. Zaccagni. One way to improve communication is to wait at least 30 minutes in the operating room after closing the sternum to estimate chest tube output. Another is to standardize blood work when a patient is bleeding in case it’s due to a rebound effect of blood thinners given during the surgery. In addition, the team developed a standardized tool for the post-operative debriefing with the entire team.

The efforts are already paying off, said Moellinger, with fewer reinterventions since they began in 2020. “Standardization and, thus, reducing variation in everything we do is an important component for the best outcomes,” she said.


[1] Makary MA, Daniel M. Medical error—the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ. 2016;353:i2139.

[2] The Joint Commission. Inadequate hand-off communication. Sentinel Event Alert. September 12, 2017. Issue 58.

[3] Caruso TJ, Marquez S, ,Luis J, et al. Standardized ICU to OR handoff increases communication without delaying surgery. Int J Health Care Qual. 2017;30(4):304-311.

[4] Joy BF, Elliott E, Hardy C, Sullivan C, Backer CL, Kane JM. Standardized multidisciplinary protocol improves handover of cardiac surgery patients to the intensive care unit. Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2011 May;12(3):304-8.

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