Continuous Patient Monitoring? The Staff Nurse as Researcher
by Jamie Terrence, R.N., California Hospital Medical Center
Imagine walking into your patient’s room already aware that your patient is actually in that bed and
has a pulse and respiratory rate within your pre-set parameters. Imagine a device that provides
continuous patient monitoring without even coming into contact with the patient. Imagine having all of
this information and more at your fingertips for your entire 12 hour shift even if you’re on your break in
the hospital cafeteria! Gone would be the days of finding your patient unresponsive, on the floor, or
missing! No, this is not something that Dr. McCoy would have used on the Enterprise or a device
used by medical droids in Star Wars. It is here and it is now!
A little over a year ago I was given the opportunity to invite the designers of this amazing device into
my hospital to find out if, in fact, the monitoring system would do what it was designed to do in such a
way that enhanced the practice of the nurse at the bedside. How this happened is a long and
convoluted story about me and my own inventive fantasies. As a Risk Manager, I was always trying
to come up with ways of preventing events, not just handling them. Then when our hospital’s
corporate office found out that one of my ideas was already in development by others, I was asked if I
wanted to be one of the first to try it out.
I jumped at the opportunity! Great minds think alike, you know. And as the Accountable Executive for
research, (most Risk Managers wear many hats, don’t we?), I was enticed by the opportunity to bring
research out of the laboratory and hands of the scientists and engineers, to the bedside and to the
The concept is simple to the scientific mind, but science fiction to those unfamiliar with the immense
amount of motion that takes place within the human body at rest. Motion, when detected, captured
and transformed into visual and auditory images and sounds, can and does alert and inform the nurse
or other care provider that all is well, or that something requires their immediate attention. All of this is
done using a small 10 by 14 inch pad, placed under the patient’s mattress with absolutely no contact
with the patient. The pad is hard wired to a monitor screen that is mounted on the wall next to the
bed. Signals from the monitor viewed in the room are sent to other locations for external viewing.
If you are a nurse, try to visualize looking up at a large LCD screen from any number of locations and
being able to see at a glance, that your patient -- or even your entire team of patients -- is in bed with
stable heart and respiratory rates. Or if you are off the unit, imagine getting a message on your
portable phone telling you that a parameter has been breached and your patient is in jeopardy. If you
are a patient or the loved one of a patient, how reassuring it would be to know that your nurse has the
latest and greatest information at her or his fingertips. Using the advanced trending functions, the
physician can review the heart and lung tracings for a day or the entire patient admission, anticipating
a worsening of an existing condition, the appearance of a new problem, or the confirmation that
discharge in appropriate.
Add to all of this: turn alerts! Now, nurses can set the device to alarm when it’s time to turn their
immobilized patients. Not only will it alert the nurse, it will actually record the turn! No more trying to
show your defense counsels where the nurses documented turning the patient in the medical record.
Show the printout to the plaintiff’s counsel and see how fast those elder abuse cases become moot.
Sounds like the perfect answer to everything doesn’t it? Or does it?
That’s where research comes in. Now it was time to bring the device to the bedside and measure,
measure, measure! But first we had to find a physician champion and take a look at pre-use data.
Phase I: Pick a test unit. An unmonitored acute medical surgical floor with no telemetry was our
choice. How many patients had fallen in the previous 6 months on the test unit? How many code
blues were called? How many times was the Rapid Response Team activated? How many patients
developed hospital-acquired pressure ulcers? How many transferred to the ICU? And much, much
more. Ok, that’s done.
Enter Phase II: Bring it to the bedside. The most difficult phase, for sure. We had to show it to the
union. Was it going to replace the nurse? Was it going to make more work for the nurse? We held
meeting after meeting until they were finally convinced, as I was, that this was about patient safety!
No more, no less.
Now, on to the nurses, the users. Classes were offered, with refreshments of course. Questions were
answered, one by one, day after day. And then, a device was put in an empty room for the nurses to
practice on. Some did, some didn’t. More work to be done. More classes, more refreshments, more
enticements, whatever worked!
Skip ahead to six months from the start of Phase I. Phase II is in full swing. The units are now
installed on each patient’s bed, thirty-six in total. The nurses are ready. They’ve had the training;
they’re anxious to start. Technical support from the company is there 24/7. But as with any solid
research study, we need to measure yet again. Are the nurses using the devices as instructed? Are
they able to set appropriate parameters? Are they responding to the alerts, which are audible alarms,
calls to their phones and visual red warnings on the screens by the nurses’ stations? Are patients still
falling, are they still having skin breakdown? Are code blue calls and rapid response team calls
decreasing? Questionnaires are filled out, charts are reviewed, and patients, families and physicians
Here is what our nurses found halfway through Phase I
(Preliminary but very exciting data!):
Unexpected positive findings:
Nurses’ critical thinking skills seemed to significantly improve as they carefully assessed
their patients in order to set parameters for pulse, blood pressure, and bed exits
Physicians were asking to have their patients admitted to the trial floor.
Expected positive findings:
Zero patient falls from bed.
Zero hospital-acquired pressure ulcers
Zero code blue calls
Early detection of sepsis in 3 cases
Early detection of blood clot in 2 cases
Early detection of serious cardiac arrhythmia in 2 cases
Early detection of over-sedation allowing immediate intervention without the need to
transfer in 8 cases
Less restraint use
Increased patient, family and physician satisfaction
Nurses like participating in research. They feel empowered and important.
Unintended negative findings:
Other preliminary findings:
Length of stay reduction
Cost of care reduction
We are now entering Phase III which involves a retrospective study of patients who have been on the
monitoring device during Phase II. But already, our nurses, not involved in the study want continuous
patient monitoring devices on their units. It might be appropriate in post-partum for early detection of
maternal hemorrhage. Our ICU director wants them there for pressure ulcer prevention, but it may be
a bit redundant with all of the other monitoring already in use in the ICU. Since the device does not
pick up electrical signals, it will not provide an EKG tracing. Nor does it pick up oximetry readings.
These and other decisions remain down the road for us. Right now the device is a ‘nice-to-have.’ Will
it become a ‘need-to-have?’ Will regulatory agencies start to expect continuous patient monitoring of
one form or another in all areas of the hospital? If you go to their websites or are at all familiar with
media reports on medical errors, I think you will agree that this may become a mandatory
requirement. Consumers may demand it. Physicians may insist on it. They’ll want ‘smart beds’ not
just ‘smart pumps.’
Whichever way healthcare reform or new regulations move our industry, the enthusiasm of our nurse
researches will help our hospital make these decisions. Bringing research into our facilities to reach
the nurses, at the bedside, can yield the most powerful data. It will inspire their creativity, ignite their
imagination, and improve their self-esteem. And finally, a nurse experiencing these things will
embrace their commitment to the safety of the patients entrusted to their care.
Jamie Terrence is the Director of Risk Management, Accountable Executive for Human Subject
Research & Facility Privacy Officer, at California Hospital Medical Center