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Dysphagia: little condition leads to big problems

A swallowing impairment known as dysphagia is a little recognised medical problem with a significant cost on our health system.

Researchers from Flinders University found that people in hospital who also have dysphagia need to stay there for longer periods.

Lead researchers Dr Stacie Attrill and Dr Sebastian Doeltgen, head of the university's Swallowing Neurorehabilitation Research Lab, say an analysis of 23 cohort studies from Europe and North America found that people with dysphagia stay, on average, for three days longer in hospital – regardless of their diagnosis – costing the health care system an average of 40 per cent more than people without impaired swallowing.

More than 100,000 Australians have dysphagia, which is a consequence of health conditions such as stroke and Parkinson’s Disease. It can lead to choking, lung infection, malnutrition and dehydration – but why is it hard to spot?

Doeltgen says, as there aren’t as many overt signs, the subtle signs are the ones to watch: such as someone not finishing their meal or starting to drink less because it's uncomfortable. In particular, it is hard to spot in the elderly as their ability to swallow naturally declines as they age.

He says that nurses play a large role in spotting and managing the signs of dysphagia by screening and identifying patients that pose a greater risk.

“[They should] get an early speech pathology assessment, as research shows this leads to catching it early and reduces the risk of these patients dying in hospital due to respiration pneumonia,” Doeltgen said.

He said nurses are in a position to consult with speech pathologists and encourage patients to maintain oral hygiene standards. He stresses that this condition is not just limited to the larger hospital setting, but also in home and residential environments.

Doeltgen joined Nursing Review to speak about how nurses can help.

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One comment

  1. Young people with brain tumour/brain cancer also suffer from dysphasia and loss speech. These symptoms are not easily recognised by nursing staff. As a patient advocate /carer (nurse) I found talking to the nursing staff about these problems were not always well received. Therefore the patient while attempting to eat lunch chocked had a seizure and aspirated. He died a few days later. The patient was 43 years old and had terminal brain tumour/cancer. I also found nursing staff need better education on oral hygiene which does not always get attended to and should be attended to twice daily as a routine. I say this because food remains in the gum area and teeth. I alway made sure my son had good oral hygiene at home and if neglected in the hospital setting. General nursing care needs a review.

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