Imagine watching your skin tear, bleed, and turn purple. Imagine, too, the pain and disfigurement you’d feel.
What if you had to live through this experience repeatedly? That’s what many elderly people go through, suffering with skin tears through no fault of their own. Some go on to develop complications.
A skin tear is a traumatic wound caused by shear, friction, or blunt-force trauma that results in a partial- or full-thickness injury. Skin tears are painful because the precipitating injury commonly involves the dermis, which is rich with nerve endings. (more…)
Are you using the wrong kind of medical tape on your patients? Although we strive to provide the safest care possible, some nurses may not realize that medical tape used to secure tubes and dressings can cause harm. The harm may stem from using the wrong product or using a product incorrectly, which can cause adhesive failure or skin injury. (more…)
Keeping clinicians up to date on clinical knowledge is one of the main goals of the Wild On Wounds (WOW) conference,held each September in Las Vegas. Each year, I present the opening session of this conference, called “The Buzz Report,”which focuses on the latest-breaking wound care news—what’s new, what’s now, and what’s coming up. I discuss innovative new products, practice guidelines, resources, and tools from the last 12 months in skin, wound, and ostomy management. (more…)
A court case answers the question as to whether a pressure ulcer was preventable
By Nancy J. Brent, MS, RN, JD
Pressure ulcers are a major health risk for every adult patient. Risk factors include sepsis, hypotension, and age 70 or older. These risk factors became all too real when Mr. M developed pressure ulcers after being admitted to a Texas hospital.
Mr. M, age 81, presented at a medical center’s emergency department on January 2 complaining of abdominal pain. After undergoing an assessment, he was diagnosed with gallstones and admitted to the hospital. The next day, he had gallbladder surgery. He subsequently developed a bowel obstruction and had to undergo two more surgeries for this condition over the next 10 days.
On January 13, he was transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU) because of multiple serious medical conditions, including respiratory distress syndrome (necessitating ventilatory support), septic shock, a “blood infection” that caused his blood pressure to drop, and multiorgan failure. His primary physician discontinued tube feedings out of concern they might exacerbate his renal failure; he wrote a do-not-resuscitate order and ordered sedation.
Mr. M was unable to turn or position himself in any way. While in the ICU, he developed a “skin tear” on the tailbone (coccyx) that progressed to a serious pressure ulcer. On February 6, his condition improved enough to allow his transfer to a rehabilitation hospital, where he developed pressure ulcers on his heels. He was transferred to another hospital; the ulcer on his coccyx healed by August. He remained in that hospital for 1 year before being discharged home.
Despite healing of the pressure ulcer on his coccyx, the wound area remained hard and painful, and Mr. M experienced “daily discomfort” there. Also, he was unable to do many of the things he’d been able to do before his hospitalization.
Mr. M files a medical malpractice suit
Mr. M sued the medical center, alleging the hospital was negligent by failing to prevent the pressure ulcer from forming through the use of known “pressure relief” methods, and that the hospital failed to provide proper care and treatment of the wound once it was discovered.
At trial, the medical center lawyers argued that Mr. M’s grave condition caused the pressure ulcer to develop. The jury returned a verdict for Mr. M, finding that the medical center’s negligence proximately caused the injuries he sustained. It awarded him $35,000 for medical expenses; $135,000 for past physical pain and mental anguish; $25,000 for future physical pain and mental anguish; $25,000 for past physical impairment; and $25,000 for future physical impairment. The medical center appealed the decision.
Medical center appeals the verdict
Several issues were raised by the medical center on appeal. Of particular interest to nurses and wound care practitioners was the “cause in fact” or the “proximate cause” of Mr. M’s pressure ulcer on the coccyx. Because an expert witness must establish proximate cause based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Mr. M’s case became a battle of the experts regarding the care he received, or lack of care, relative to development of the pressure ulcer.
Expert witness testimony for Mr. M
The first nurse expert to testify was Mr. M’s highly qualified expert. She testified about the various acceptable ways to provide pressure relief, including turning the patient or, if the patient can’t be turned, repositioning. The latter requires use of foam wedges or pillows to elevate a particular body part. The nurse expert testified that if a patient can’t be turned or repositioned, that fact must be documented along with the reason for inability to carry out this nursing care.
Proper assessment of the pressure ulcer is required so that other team members can “see” the wound; the clinician who assesses the wound should draw a picture of exactly what he or she saw when documenting the note in the patient’s chart. The nurse expert testified that the assessment should include the color, duration, and depth of the pressure ulcer; presence or absence of infection; and whether the tissue was dead or perfused.
After reviewing the medical center’s policies and protocols on pressure relief, which required nurses to provide pressure relief every 2 hours, and the depositions of the nurses who’d cared for Mr. M, the nurse expert testified there was no documentation showing Mr. M received any pressure relief from January 13 to January 16. She said she could only conclude that the nurses failed to turn or reposition him during those days. The only notation made about his skin condition was when nurses discovered the “skin tear” on January 14. After this discovery, the physician wasn’t notified of it until January 19. On that date, the physician ordered a wound care consult, but the actual consultation didn’t occur until 3 days later. Even with the wound consultant’s specific, written orders to care for the wound, only one notation existed showing that the orders were followed. Also, the wound care orders weren’t entered into Mr. M’s care plan until January 28. Additionally, in their depositions, the nurses caring for Mr. M couldn’t recall changing the dressing as ordered.
Therefore, in the nurse expert’s opinion, the pressure ulcer on Mr. M’s coccyx was caused directly by failure of the ICU nurses to provide pressure relief from January 14 to January 16 and that providing the wound care that was ordered would have prevented the ulcer from getting worse and would have healed the ulcer.
Although a physician serving as a second expert for Mr. M also testified that pressure relief should have been provided, he couldn’t say that development of the pressure ulcer was unpreventable.
Expert witness testimony for the medical center
Not surprisingly, the medical center’s expert witnesses, two of whom were physicians, testified that because of Mr. M’s general medical condition, he would have developed the pressure ulcer even if hospital policies and protocols had been followed. The hospital’s nurse expert witness stated that Mr. M’s pressure ulcer was not preventable because of his medical condition, regardless of whether or not he was turned. In her opinion, the active range of motion his nurses put him through was enough to reperfuse the area.
Appellate court’s decision
The appellate court upheld the trial court jury’s verdict, stating that evidence presented at the trial was legally and factually sufficient to support that verdict.
Mr. M’s case undoubtedly was complicated by his age and general medical condition, as well as disagreement among expert witnesses as to the cause of the pressure ulcer on his coccyx. Even so, the appellate court held that the evidence at trial (specifically that presented by Mr. M’s nurse expert witness) was sufficient legally and factually to support the verdict in favor of Mr. M. This case illustrates many areas of importance for nurses in terms of formation and care of pressure ulcers. They include the following: • Risk factors supporting potential formation of pressure ulcers can’t be overlooked or underestimated by nursing staff. • A plan to prevent pressure ulcers should be initiated on admission for every patient who is immobile or has other risk factors for pressure ulcers. • Documentation of every aspect of nursing care that’s initiated and continued to prevent pressure ulcers from forming must be carried out as ordered and pursuant to hospital policy and protocol. • Care plans, communications with other health team members, and carrying out of orders must be done as soon as possible. • Assessment and documentation of pressure ulcers should include enough detail so other health team members can visualize what the nurse entering the documentation has seen. • The nurse should assess and stage the pressure ulcer at each dressing change. • One’s expert witness must be credentialed, educated, and experienced in would care prevention and treatment, because his or her testimony can win or lose a case.
Nursing remains at the forefront of protecting and safeguarding patients from pressure ulcers. Although not every ulcer can be prevented, the goal is to prevent as many ulcers as possible. If a pressure ulcer does occur, caregivers’ essential focus must be on healing or preventing further deterioration and infection.
Selected references Columbia Medical Center Subsidiary, L.P., d/b/a/ North Central Medical Center, Appellant, v. John Meier, Appellee. 198 S.W. 3d 408 (Ct. Appeals 2006).
Lyder CH, Ayello EA. Pressure ulcers: A Patient Safety Issue. In: Hughes RG, ed. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook For Nurses. Rockville, MD: Agency For Healthcare Research and Quality. April 2008. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/
NBK2650/. Accessed November 1, 2012.
Nancy J. Brent is an attorney in Wilmette, Illinois. The information in this article is for educational purposes only and doesn’t constitute legal advice.
Wound care has come a long way in just a few decades. With our expanded knowledge of wound healing and recent advances in treatment, we’re now able to assess wounds more accurately, recognize wound-related problems sooner, provide better interventions, and reduce morbidity.
To bring you up to date on current evidence-based wound management, this article focuses on assessing patients with chronic wounds, optimizing wound healing with effective wound-bed preparation, and selecting an appropriate dressing.
Wound chronicity and cause
Developing an appropriate plan of care hinges on conducting a thorough, accurate evaluation of both the patient and the wound. The first step is to determine whether the wound is acute or chronic.
• A chronic wound is one that fails to heal within a reasonable time—usually
• An acute wound heals more quickly, causing minimal functional loss in the part of the body with the wound.
Identifying the cause of the wound also is essential. If the wound etiology is unknown, explore the patient’s medical history (including medication history) for clues to possible causes. Also review the patient’s history for conditions that could impede wound healing. (See What factors hamper healing? by clicking the PDF icon above)
Other important aspects of assessment include evaluating the patient’s nutritional status, quantifying the level of pain (if present), and gauging the patient’s self-care abilities.
General physical appearance
Conduct a general head-to-toe physical examination, focusing on the patient’s height, weight, and skin characteristics.
Height, weight, and weight trend
On admission, the patient’s height and weight should be measured to ensure appropriate nutritional and pharmacologic management. After a weight gain or loss, various factors may complicate wound healing. For instance, involuntary weight loss and protein-energy malnutrition may occur in both acute-care and long-term-care patients.
Especially note trends in your patient’s weight. For a long-term-care patient, a 5% weight loss over 30 days or a 10% loss over 180 days is considered involuntary. Arrange for a nutritional consult for any patient with an involuntary weight loss, as adequate nutrition is essential for general well-being and wound healing. (See A wound on the mend by clicking the PDF icon above.)
Evaluate the patient’s skin color in light of ethnic background. If you note erythema—especially on a pressure point over a bony prominence—examine this area carefully for nonblanching erythema. Keep in mind that darkly pigmented skin doesn’t show such erythema and subsequent blanching, yet the patient may still be in jeopardy. So in dark-skinned patients, check for differences in skin color, temperature, or firmness compared to adjacent tissue; these differences may signify skin compromise.
Skin texture and turgor
Generally, healthy skin feels smooth and firm and has an even surface and good turgor (elasticity). To test turgor, gently grasp and pull up a fold of skin on a site such as the anterior chest below the clavicle. Does the skin return to place almost immediately after you release it, or does it stand up (“tent”)? Tenting indicates dehydration. But keep in mind that skin loses elasticity with age, so elderly patients normally have decreased turgor.
With normal circulatory status, the skin is warm and its temperature is similar bilaterally. Areas of increased warmth or coolness suggest infection or compromised circulation. Be sure to check the temperature of skin surrounding the wound.
Proper wound assessment can significantly influence patient outcome. Measure the wound carefully and document the condition of the wound bed. Remember that accurate descriptions are essential for guiding ongoing wound care. Repeat wound measurement and wound-bed assessment at least weekly, after the wound bed has been cleaned and debrided.
Keep in mind that assessing a chronic wound can be challenging. Wounds commonly have irregular shapes that can change quickly. Also, the multiple clinicians caring for the same patient may each describe the wound a bit differently.
Note the precise anatomic location of the wound, as this can influence the wound care plan. A venous ulcer on the lower leg, for instance, requires different care than an arterial ulcer in the same site or a pressure ulcer on the ischium.
Circumference and depth
Use a paper or plastic measuring device to measure wound circumference and depth in centimeters (cm) or millimeters (mm). To promote accurate assessment of healing, be sure to use the same reference points each time you measure the wound.
You can use several methods to measure circumference. The most commonly used method of measurement is done in the head to toe direction. Measure the wound at its greatest length in that direction & measure the width at a 90 degree angle, at the widest point of the wound. Then multiply these two measurements (greatest length x greatest width) to obtain the total wound area. Although such linear measurements are imprecise, they yield gross information relative to wound healing when repeated over time.
Classify wound depth as partial thickness or full thickness.
• Partial-thickness wounds are limited to the skin layers and don’t penetrate the dermis. They usually heal by reepithelialization, in which epidermal cells regenerate and cover the wound. Abrasions, lacerations, and blisters are examples of partial-thickness wounds.
• Full-thickness wounds involve tissue loss below the dermis.
(Note: Pressure ulcers usually are classified by a four-stage system and diabetic foot ulcers by a grading system. Both systems are beyond this article’s scope.)
Measure and record wound depth based on the deepest area of tissue loss. To measure depth, gently place an appropriate device (such as a foam-tipped applicator) vertically in the deepest part of the wound, and mark the applicator at the patient’s skin level. Then measure from the end of the applicator to the mark to obtain depth.
Surrounding skin and tissue
Inspect for and document any erythema, edema, or ecchymosis within 4 cm of the wound edges, and reevaluate for these signs frequently. Because compromised skin near the wound is at risk for breakdown, preventive measures may be necessary.
Appearance of wound-bed tissue
Document viable tissue in the wound bed as granulation, epithelial, muscle, or subcutaneous tissue. Granulation tissue is connective tissue containing multiple small blood vessels, which aid rapid healing of the wound bed; appearing red or pink, it commonly looks shiny and granular. Epithelial tissue consists of regenerated epidermal cells across the wound bed; it may be shiny and silvery.
Check for nonviable tissue (also called necrotic, slough, or fibrin slough tissue), which may impede wound healing. It may vary in color from black or tan to yellow, and may adhere firmly or loosely to the wound bed. (See Picturing a necrotic wound by clicking the PDF icon above.)
Be sure to document the range of colors visible throughout the wound. Identify the color that covers the largest percentage of the wound bed. This color—and its significance—guide dressing selection.
Document the amount, color, and odor of exudate (drainage) in the wound. Exudate with high protease levels and low growth factor levels may impede healing.
If the wound is covered by an occlusive dressing, assess exudate after the wound has been cleaned. Describe the amount of exudate as none, minimal, moderate, or heavy.
Describe exudate color as serous, serosanguineous, sanguineous, or purulent. Serous exudate is clear and watery, with no debris or blood present. Serosanguineous exudate is clear, watery, and tinged pink or pale red, denoting presence of blood. Sanguineous exudate is bloody, indicating active bleeding. Purulent exudate may range from yellow to green to brown or tan.
Describe wound odor as absent, faint, moderate, or strong. Note whether the odor is present only during dressing removal, if it disappears after the dressing is discarded, or if it permeates the room.
Wound edges indicate the epithelialization trend and suggest the possible cause and chronicity of the wound. The edges should attach to the wound bed. Edges that are rolled (a condition called epibole) indicate a chronic wound, in which epithelial cells are unable to adhere to a moist, healthy wound bed and can’t migrate across and resurface the wound.
Undermining and tracts
Gently probe around the wound edges and in the wound bed to check for undermining and tracts. Undermining, which may occur around the edges, presents as a space between the intact skin and wound bed (resembling a roof over part of the wound). It commonly results from shear forces in conjunction with sustained pressure. A tract, or tunnel, is a channel extending from one part of the wound through subcutaneous tissue or muscle to another part.
Measure the depth of a tract or undermining by inserting an appropriate device into the wound as far as it will go without forcing it. Then mark the skin on the outside where you can see or feel the applicator tip. Document your findings based on a clock face, with 12 o’clock representing the patient’s head and 6 o’clock denoting the feet. For instance, you might note “2.0-cm undermining from 7:00 to 9:00 position.”
Ask the patient to quantify the level of pain caused by the wound, using the pain scale designated by your facility. Find out which pain-management techniques have relieved your patient’s pain in the past; as appropriate, incorporate these into a pain-management plan. Reevaluate the patient’s pain level regularly.
An evolving science, wound-bed preparation is crucial for minimizing or removing barriers to healing. The goal is to minimize factors that impair healing and maximize the effects of wound care. The key elements of wound-bed preparation are controlling bioburden and maintaining moisture balance. (For online resources on wound-bed preparation and other wound-care topics, see Where to get more information by clicking the PDF icon above.)
Necrotic tissue and exudate harbor bacteria. A wound’s bioburden—the number of contaminating microbes—contributes to poor healing. All chronic wounds are considered contaminated or colonized, but not necessarily infected. In a colonized wound, healing is impeded as bacteria compete for nutrients; also, bacteria have harmful byproducts. To control bioburden, the wound must be cleaned and necrotic tissue must be debrided.
Cleaning the wound. Clean the wound before assessing it and applying a dressing. Use a noncytotoxic agent (typically, potable water, normal saline irrigating solution, or an appropriate wound-cleaning agent). Antiseptic solutions generally aren’t recommended for wound irrigation or dressings because they’re toxic to fibroblasts and other wound-repairing cells. If you must use such a solution, make sure it’s well diluted.
To ensure gentle cleaning or irrigation, pour solution over the wound bed or gently flush the wound with solution (using a 60-mL catheter-tip syringe) until the drainage clears. Know that pressurized irrigation techniques and whirlpool therapy aren’t recommended for wound cleaning because they disturb cell proliferation in the wound bed.
Debriding the wound. Debridement removes slough and necrotic tissue. Nonselective debridement techniques remove any type of tissue within the wound bed, whereas selective methods remove only necrotic tissue. (See Wound debridement techniques by clicking the PDF icon below.)
Maintaining moisture balance
To maintain moisture balance in the wound bed, you must manage exudate and keep the wound bed moist. The proper dressing (which may stay in place for days or longer) supports moist wound healing and exudate management. To minimize fluid pooling, a drain may be inserted into the wound. Negative-pressure wound therapy also may aid removal of excess exudate.
Choosing an appropriate dressing
The wound dressing plays a major role in maintaining moisture balance. Dressing selection is challenging because of the large number and variety of dressings available. Each product has specific actions, benefits, and drawbacks, so determining which dressing best suits the patient’s needs is a multifaceted process.
Dressing choice depends on such factors as wound type and appearance, exudate, presence or absence of pain, and required dressing change frequency. (See Dressings Options by clicking the PDF icon above.)
In a traditional dressing, gauze is applied in layers. The initial (contact) layer in the wound bed absorbs drainage and wicks it to the next layer; most often, this layer consists of woven cotton gauze or synthetic gauze. Remove the gauze gently, because it may be stuck to the wound or incision (especially if the gauze is cotton). For easier removal, moisten the dressing with normal saline solution to loosen it.
With a traditional dressing, the cover layer or secondary dressing is an abdominal pad with a “no-strike-through” layer next to the outside of the dressing. Be aware that wet-to-dry dressings are highly discouraged for their nonselective debriding effect and inability to provide a moist wound bed.
Reassess the patient’s wound at least weekly (after preparing the wound bed and dressing the wound) to determine healing progress. Keep in mind that wound-care management is a collaborative effort. Once you’ve assessed the patient, discuss your findings and subsequent wound management with other members of the team.
Wound care wisdom
Getting wiser about wound care will help your patients achieve good outcomes. Poor wound healing can be frustrating to patients, family members, and healthcare providers alike. Chronic wounds may necessitate lifestyle changes and lead to severe physical consequences ranging from infection to loss of function and even death. By performing careful assessment, tailoring patients’ wound care to wound etiology, and using evidence-based protocols to manage wounds, you can promote speedier wound healing, help lower morbidity, and improve quality of life.
Bryant RA, Nix DP. Acute and Chronic Wounds: Current Management Concepts. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby; 2011.
Gardener SE, Frantz R, Hillis SL, Park H, Scherubel M. Diagnostic validity of semiquantitative swab cultures. Wounds. 2007;(19)2:31-38.
Krasner DL, Rodeheaver GT, Sibbald RG. Chronic Wound Care: A Clinical Source Book for Healthcare Professionals. 4th ed. Wayne, PA: HMP Communications; 2007.
Langemo DK, Brown G. Skin fails too: acute, chronic, and end-stage skin failure. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2006;19(4):206-211.
Langemo DK, Anderson J, Hanson D, Hunter S, Thompson P. Measuring wound length, width, and area: which technique? Adv Skin Wound Care. 2008;21:42-45.
Milne C, Armand OC, Lassie M. A comparison of collagenase to hydrogel dressings in wound debridement. Wounds. 2010:22(11):270-274.
National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel and European Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel. Prevention and Treatment of Pressure Ulcers: Clinical Practice Guideline. Washington, DC: National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel; 2009.
Ovington LG. Hanging wet-to-dry dressings out to dry. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2002;15(2):79-86.
Sibbald RG, Coutts P, Woo KY. Reduction of bacterial burden and pain in chronic wounds using a new polyhexamethylene biguanide antimicrobial foam dressing—clinical trial results. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2011;24(2):78-84.
Solway DR, Consalter M, Levinson DJ. Microbial cellulose wound dressing in the treatment of skin tears in the frail elderly. Wounds. 2010:22(1):17-19.
Wound Ostomy and Continence Nurses Society. Guideline for Prevention and Management of Pressure Ulcers. Mt. Laurel, NJ: Author; 2010
Patricia A. Slachta is a Clinical Nurse Specialist at The Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and an adjunct nursing instructor at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort, South Carolina.