In my 15 years focusing on developing drink thickening solutions for dysphagia patients, the intersection of dysphagia management and patient safety has become increasingly apparent. Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, presents not only as a significant health challenge but also as a critical patient safety issue. The condition's underdiagnosis, particularly in vulnerable populations, heightens the risk of severe complications, including choking, aspiration pneumonia, dehydration and the profound fear of choking that can lead to malnutrition.
The prevalence of dysphagia and its safety implications
Dysphagia's prevalence is notably higher among specific populations, with studies indicating rates from 2.3% to over 16% in the elderly and up to 99% in children with severe generalised cerebral palsy and learning disability.[1, 2] These figures underscore the condition's widespread impact, yet dysphagia often remains underdiagnosed and undertreated, particularly in vulnerable groups. Public Health England and clinical research highlight the pressing need for better recognition and management of dysphagia to mitigate its health impacts and address the associated health inequalities.
Patient safety concerns
The safety risks associated with undiagnosed or poorly managed dysphagia cannot be overstated. Choking and aspiration pneumonia are direct threats to patient safety, with the latter being a leading cause of death in individuals with severe dysphagia. Moreover, the fear of choking can lead to voluntary dehydration and malnutrition, as individuals may avoid eating or drinking to prevent aspiration, further compromising their health and safety.
Improving the identification and diagnosis of dysphagia is paramount to enhancing patient safety. This involves:
- Educational initiatives: Healthcare professionals must be equipped with the knowledge to recognise early signs of dysphagia and understand the associated safety risks. Education should emphasise the critical nature of early detection and the potential consequences of untreated dysphagia, including the increased risk of choking and dehydration.
- Implementing screening protocols: Systematic screening for dysphagia, utilising tools such as the simple screening tool, 4QT, should be standard practice in healthcare settings. Early detection can significantly reduce the risk of serious complications by facilitating timely and appropriate interventions.
- Multidisciplinary approach: The management of dysphagia requires a collaborative effort among speech and language therapists, dietitians, occupational therapists, and other healthcare professionals. This team-based approach ensures comprehensive care plans that address both the medical and safety aspects of dysphagia.
- Enhancing awareness among caregivers and patients: Educating caregivers and patients about dysphagia and its implications is crucial. Increased awareness can lead to better compliance with management strategies, reducing the risk of patient harm.
Undiagnosed and unmanaged dysphagia is a significant patient safety concern. As healthcare providers, our role extends beyond treatment to include the prevention of complications associated with this condition. By prioritising the early detection of dysphagia and employing a multidisciplinary management approach, we can significantly improve patient safety outcomes.
- Tsang K, Lau ESY, Shazra M, et al. A New Simple Screening Tool—4QT: Can It Identify Those with Swallowing Problems? A Pilot Study. Geriatrics, 2020.
- RCSLT. Dysphagia and eating, drinking and swallowing needs overview.
- Adkins C, Takakura W, Spiegel BMR. Prevalence and Characteristics of Dysphagia Based on a Population-Based Survey. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2020; 18: 1970-79.
About the Author
Mathew Done is the founder and Managing Director of Slo Drinks, specialists in thickening drinks for people with dysphagia. Mathew is dedicated to helping patients living with dysphagia live good lives and to be able to take pleasure from drinking and keeping hydrated. If you would like to find out more about 4QT on a free pocket sized card, please contact email@example.com.