OBJECTIVE: Recent changes in the NHS have seen nurses take on roles that are traditionally filled by doctors, leading to the development of emergency nurse practitioners (ENPs). In addition to this, increasing interest has focused on telemedicine (literally, medicine at a distance) as a way of supporting remote emergency departments and minor injuries units from larger centres. The vast majority of these consultations are related to peripheral limb trauma and require a radiograph to be viewed as an integral part of the telemedical consultation. The aim of this study was therefore to determine whether nurses working alone in a peripheral unit are able to appropriately request, and accurately interpret, peripheral limb radiographs. METHODS: In this prospective study the four qualified nurses working in a peripheral unit were permitted to request a defined set of radiographs after limb trauma. A written protocol for nurse requested radiographs was supported by individual teaching sessions. At the time that the radiograph was requested basic demographic details were recorded and the patient was also assessed by two senior doctors in emergency medicine, one in person and one via a telemedicine link, both of whom independently considered whether the radiograph requested by the nurse was appropriate in that patient. Nursing staff were also asked to provide a provisional interpretation of each film, and this was compared with a gold standard derived from the interpretations of the two emergency physicians who had seen the patient and the final radiologist's report. RESULTS: The first 300 patients who had a radiograph requested by a member of the nursing staff were studied over a period of 12 months. Altogether 93 radiographs (31%) were positive for recent bony trauma or radio-opaque foreign body. Eleven radiographs (3.7%) were judged by both emergency physicians to be inappropriate. Three radiographs (1%) were requested outside the limits of the protocol, but all three were judged to be appropriate and occurred within the first two months of the study. A total of 32 (10.7%) of the radiographs were incorrectly interpreted by nursing staff with 26 false positives, four false negatives and two cases where the nurse observed an abnormality but failed to identify it correctly. The sensitivity of nurse interpretation was therefore 96%, with a specificity of 87%. CONCLUSION: Experienced nurses, working without continuous medical supervision in a remote unit, are able to request appropriate radiographs of the peripheral limbs. Nurses requesting radiographs in this way can also interpret these films to a high standard, though with a tendency to err on the side of caution, generating many more false positive results than false negatives.
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