Medical speech pathology has its uncertainties. This may cause the speech-language pathologist to be very conservative, possibly over-treating or overcompensating, per James Coyle, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-S at his talk on April 11, 2014, at the ASHA Healthcare & Business Institute, “When the cause of dysphagia is not obvious: Sorting through treasure and surprises in the medical record.”
Coyle advised clinicians to value the medical record just as much as our direct examination of the patient. The “medical record is a messy place,” per Coyle. It is our job to dig for clues to distinguish which came first: the illness or the dysphagia. Some conditions can mimic dysphagia-related aspiration pneumonia. Some community acquired infections can create weakness and delirium, which then cause an acute dysphagia.
Let’s start with a story: An active-independent elderly female develops a urinary tract infection (UTI). She feels sleepy and stops eating/drinking regularly. This worsens the UTI and causes dehydration. She gets to the hospital four days after the onset of symptoms. Dehydration causes electrolyte imbalances, leading to delirium. Delirium + infection = more lethargy and a global cognitive decline. Being out of her usual environment causes more confusion and agitation. Antipsychotic medications are used to control the acute agitation. The patient becomes septic, as the infectious process spreads. Her urosepsis spreads to a pneumonia. The SLP notes a high aspiration risk, as the patient looks severely impaired. Unfortunately, without a thorough medical record review, the patient is labeled with dysphagia-related aspiration pneumonia. She stays on thickened liquids and pureed foods until hospital discharge. Will the patient fall through the cracks and never eat regular food again? Will the “Big-A-word” (ASPIRATION) follow her the rest of her life? Or will an SLP re-evaluate her in two weeks and discover that her dysphagia has disappeared?
I have summarized Coyle’s talk into these seven clues (more details and references in my full post).
1) Is it pneumonia?
- New infiltrate on CXR. Dependent lobes? Not necessarily only the lower lobes if the patient is bedridden or aspirating while laying down on the couch.
- Leukocytosis (WBC count of >11.5-12.0). Warning: immune-compromised patients cannot make white blood cells.
- Fever (>38 Celsius for >24 hours)
2) What type of pneumonia is it?
- Ventilator Acquired Pneumonia (VAP): May be widespread infiltrates. Strong correlation with oral pathogens.
- Dysphagia-Related Aspiration Pneumonia (DAP): A recurrent pneumonia may be one big infection from ongoing aspiration. Perform a swallow study to determine if dysphagia is present and why. This is so important. If we label them with DAP, that patient’s past medical history will forever say “Aspiration Pneumonia.” Then medical personnel may be overly conservative in the future.
- Non-Dysphagia-Related Aspiration Pneumonia (NDAP) and/or Aspiration Pneumonitis: if no dysphagia present before infection, check history for chemical irritants, allergens, reflux, a vomiting event, or use of acid-suppression therapy (i.e., Proton-Pump Inhibitors).
- Hospital Acquired Pneumonia (HAP) or Health Care Acquired Pneumonia (HCAP): pathogens from the institution getting into the lung. Aspiration?
- Community Acquired Pneumonia (CAP): may be diffuse infiltrates and not in dependent lobes.
3) What was the patient’s baseline? “You got to have dysphagia to have dysphagia,” joked Coyle. “But seriously,” he added, “I can’t underscore this enough.” Dysphagia-Related Aspiration Pneumonia (DAP) requires the finding of difficulty swallowing prior to getting sick. Be a detective.
4) Is there a systemic spread of infection (e.g., septicemia or sepsis)?
- Sources: The lung is not the sole source for the primary infection. Wound, oral cavity, urinary tract?
- Problem: The patient may not develop sudden signs, but it can unfold rapidly. Coyle urged SLPs to be careful when predicting goals for the future, as “sick people look pretty darn sick.” Good communication is needed at discharge to ensure re-evaluations.
- Ask the medical team questions: Is this a short-term reversible problem? Could this be an acute dysphagia due to the illness?
5) Was there a surgical procedure that could have caused the dysphagia? For examples: cardiothoracic surgery, lung transplant, lung resection, esophagectomy, head/neck cancer resection. Coyle recommended Atkins, et al (2007). See references on my full post.
6) Was there a medical procedure that could have caused the dysphagia or an aspiration? For examples: feeding tubes, prolonged intubation, traumatic intubation, peri-operative aspiration event, chemotherapy/radiation.
7) Are there medications that could be causing the aspiration, dysphagia, or pneumonia?
- Polypharmacy increases a patient’s pneumonia risk.
- Coyle recommended reading Knol, et al (2008). This was a case controlled study of elderly patients with age-matched controls. Patients who received antipsychotics where 60% more likely to have pneumonia.
- Read more possibilities on my full post.
Our answers to these questions have a great impact on all we do: from our initial examination and instrumental evaluations through our discharge plan and beyond. SLPs do not diagnose pneumonia, but our communication with the medical team is an extremely valuable contribution to their differential diagnosis.
Karen Sheffler, MS, CCC-SLP, BCS-S, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1995 with her master’s degree. There, she was under the influence of the great mentors in the field of dysphagia like Dr. John (Jay) Rosenbek, Dr. JoAnne Robbins, and Dr. James L. Coyle. Once the “dysphagia bug” bit, she has never looked back. Karen has always enjoyed medical speech pathology, working in skilled nursing facilities and rehabilitation centers in the 1990s, and now in acute care in the Boston area for more than 14 years. She has trained graduate student clinicians during their acute care internships for more than 10 years. Special interests include neurological conditions, esophageal dysphagia, geriatrics, end-of-life considerations, and patient safety/risk management. She has lectured on various topics in dysphagia in the hospital setting, to dental students at the Tufts University Dental School, and on Lateral Medullary Syndrome at the 2011 ASHA convention. She is a member of the Dysphagia Research Society and the Special Interest Group 13: Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders. Karen obtained her BCS-S (Board Certified Specialist in Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders) in August of 2012. You can follow her blog, www.swallowstudy.com.