Lives saved by empowering nurses

A nurse-driven initiative changes outcomes for heart-surgery patients and gets national recognition.
Dec. 29, 2017

Now able to intervene within seconds, intensive care nurses at UCHealth are preventing more cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients.

What’s the contributing factor? Adoption by UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies of Cardiac Surgery Unit-Advanced Life Support (CSU-ALS) protocol, recently published and accepted in the United States.

“CSU-ALS enables nurses to administer a targeted treatment quicker,” said Melanie Roberts, a Clinical Nurse Specialist for critical care at MCR. “Nurses are doing the right thing in seconds for the best outcomes.”

In October, Roberts was awarded 2017 National Magnet Nurse of the Year in empirical outcomes by the American Nurses Credentialing Center for her work in implementing CSU-ALS at UCHealth.

Melanie Roberts is shown in a hospital room. Roberts was awarded 2017 National Magnet Nurse of the Year in empirical outcomes by the American Nurses Credentialing Center for her work in cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients.
Melanie Roberts was awarded 2017 National Magnet Nurse of the Year in empirical outcomes by the American Nurses Credentialing Center for her work in implementing CSU-ALS at UCHealth.

The protocol for cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients

“This protocol and redesigned workflow allow nurses to take action within the 15 to 20 seconds that will prevent cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients,” she said.

Traditional life support methods (Advanced Cardiac Life Support or ACLS) — usually begin with chest compressions — don’t make sense for cardiac surgery patients, who are in an ICU where other life-saving interventions are immediately available.

These interventions, such as pacemakers and defibrillators, may prevent the need for CPR and in many cases, stop a full cardiac arrest from occurring, Roberts added.

In 2015, the year prior to CSU-ALS implementation at MCR, 73 percent of the cardiac surgical patients who required resuscitation in the cardiac ICU needed chest compressions, whereas, in 2016, the year after CSU-ALS became protocol, only 32 percent needed chest compressions, according to MCR data.

It’s evident that early intervention is the key, Roberts said.

Old vs. new way of doing things

Before institution of the protocol, when a patient showed signs of cardiac arrest, a nurse began CPR until the pacemaker or defibrillator arrived.  Now CSU-ALS gives nurses the tools and training to intervene immediately before the doctor gets there. The CSU-ALS protocol has unique interventions and calls on a special “cardiac surgery code team.” Measures include using temporary pacing wires or already-attached defibrillation pads, employing different standards for CPR depth, and even opening up the chest to get to the heart.

“We have to intervene immediately if we are going to prevent cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients,” Roberts said.

UCHealth nurses are shown using simulators during a training for new protocols for cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients.
UCHealth nurses train on the new protocols for cardiac arrest in heart surgery patients using simulators.

In the first year, the CSU-ALS protocol was implemented, the percentage of patients who went into cardiac arrest decreased from 2.67 to 1.6 percent.

“Now nurses hook the patient up to a pacemaker and have defibrillators outside the room to use to restore the heart rhythm faster,” Roberts said. “Chest compressions help get a pulse back, but we don’t want to use chest compressions if we don’t have to.”

Patients who have undergone complex cardiac surgical procedures, such as open-heart surgery, have unique hemodynamics, she said. Compressions from CPR can cause serious issues, and ACLS-recommended medication has the potential to cause bleeding in these patients. ACLS guidelines don’t address this specific group, but CSU-ALS does.

CSU-ALS was developed in Europe in 2009 and then approved by the European Resuscitation Council. But it was only recently that the Society of Thoracic Surgeons in the United States endorsed the guidelines.

Sharing knowledge and outcomes

Roberts presented CSU-ALS and UCHealth’s findings at the 2017 ANCC National Magnet Conference in Houston, Texas, in October. The Magnet Recognition Program, and its hospital designation, is a leading indicator of an organization focused on quality patient care, nursing excellence and innovations in professional nursing practice, according to its website. Its national conference is attended by more than 9,000 nurses and nursing executives, representing more than 20 countries.

“Many asked how I was able to do it here when the protocol was so new to the U.S. and such a complex practice change,” Roberts said.

Roberts shared her strategies, which included help from Susan Miller, a cardiovascular surgery nurse practitioner at MCR.

Roberts and Miller introduced the protocol to MCR management in 2014, presenting research that validated its benefit for patients. They soon received the support of the cardiothoracic surgeons, quality and code committees and senior leadership. Both nurses attended a CSU-ALS conference in 2014 and instructor training in 2015, becoming two of the first health care professionals in the United States certified to train others in CSU-ALS.

Then in 2016, Miller and Roberts trained more than 60 nurses and other members of the ICU cardiac team in CSU-ALS, and held monthly mock trainings to keep their skills sharp.

“Nurses embraced this new protocol once they proved to themselves they could do it,” Roberts said. “There is a strong positive reinforcement with CSU-ALS because when it’s needed, they see right away that it works.”

Roberts and her team continue to track and record data on CSU-ALS because there is not a lot of published data on its use in the U.S., she said. She said UCHealth plans to implement it as a system as its hospitals are ready.

Roberts hopes that her recent recognition by Magnet will add momentum to CSU-ALS implementations, not only at UCHealth but across the country.

“We work really hard to be a Magnet-designated hospital,” Roberts said. “And it pushes us to do these types of projects and implement these innovative practices that empower our nurses and benefit our patients.”

Along with MCR, UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital and UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital are also Magnet-designated hospitals.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.