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Chapter: Clinical Cases in Anesthesia : Ambulatory Surgery

What discharge criteria must be met before a patient may leave the ambulatory surgery center?

Most institutions divide postanesthesia care into two phases. The first phase begins when the patient first enters the recovery area.

What discharge criteria must be met before a patient may leave the ambulatory surgery center?


Most institutions divide postanesthesia care into two phases. The first phase begins when the patient first enters the recovery area. The second phase, or step-down phase, begins after stability of vital signs has been achieved and the major effects of anesthesia have dissipated. At this point, the patient can be comfortably transferred into a recliner chair, either in the same area or in another unit (Table 77.5).


Patients who have received a spinal or epidural anes-thetic can only be discharged when full motor, sensory, and sympathetic function has returned. An inpatient who will remain at bed rest might be discharged from the PACU to the nursing unit while minimal residual neural blockade persists; in the case of the ambulatory patient, however, it is essential that the block has completely dissipated.


Following administration of an epidural or spinal anes-thetic, the patient should demonstrate the ability to void. This provides evidence that residual sympathetic blockade has dissipated. Of course, before attempting to ambulate a patient, it is essential to ensure that all motor block has resolved.


Patients who have received an ankle block, brachial plexus block, or peripheral nerve block may be discharged despite the persistence of residual anesthesia or paresthesias. The arm or foot should be protected from harm with either a sling in the case of the arm or a bulky dressing in the case of the foot. The patient needs to be reminded that in time the block will dissipate and discomfort will appear. For this reason, instructions should be given to take the prescribed oral analgesic medication at the first sign of discomfort, because pain is most readily treated before it becomes excruciating.

Patients who have received general anesthesia may awaken either in the operating room or shortly after trans-fer to the PACU. Although the patient may appear to be lucid and oriented, numerous criteria must be satisfied before a patient may be considered to be ready for discharge from the facility. A restoration of vital signs within 15–20% of the preoperative baseline is ordinarily required. Patients should demonstrate an intact gag reflex and the ability to cough effectively and swallow liquids without difficulty. It is not necessary for patients to eat before discharge. Forcing patients to ingest unwanted food in the absence of hunger may simply serve to increase the incidence of postoperative nausea and vomiting. Ordinarily, the patient is asked to demonstrate the ability to tolerate a small amount of liquid. If a patient experiences mild nausea and has not been able to ingest more than a few sips without precipitating vomit-ing or increased nausea, it is foolish to persist. Discharge can still be considered, but written instructions must be provided regarding steps to be taken (contact facility or surgeon) if there is continued inability to tolerate fluids. It is important to ensure that a normal state of hydration has been achieved before discharge. This is especially important following surgery in the oral cavity, where postoperative pain may preclude early oral intake.


Unless the patient was previously unable to walk or the procedure performed precludes ambulation, patients should be able to walk with assistance and without experiencing dizziness. If crutches are required, it should not be assumed that the patient received preoperative instruction. Additional instruction should be offered. Hemostasis should be present at the surgical site, and control of pain should be satisfactory. The preoperative level of orientation should be achieved, although a mild degree of residual sedation is acceptable.


It is not essential for a patient to demonstrate the ability to urinate unless genitourinary, gynecologic, or other surgery has been performed in the inguinal or perineal region. The patient and the escort should be instructed of the need to contact either the ambulatory facility or the surgeon if the patient has not voided within 6 hours following discharge from the recovery area.


Postanesthesia discharge scoring systems have been pro-posed and developed for the purpose of assessing when home readiness is achieved in the postoperative period. Criteria such as mental status, pain intensity, ability to ambu-late, and stability of vital signs are given numeric values. A total score above a particular number may indicate a high likelihood of readiness for discharge. To be practical, a scor-ing system must be readily understood, simple to employ, and objective. Sophisticated pen-and-paper and neuro-psychological tests to assess recovery from anesthesia are reserved solely for research purposes. Actually, after stabil-ity in vital signs is achieved, the ability of a patient to walk and urinate may be the best measure of a patient’s gross recovery from an anesthetic and signal readiness for dis-charge. These activities indicate return of motor strength, central nervous system functioning, and restoration of sympathetic tone.


Each patient and escort should receive a set of detailed, written discharge instructions regarding activity, medica-tions, care of dressings, and bathing restrictions. Instructions must be reviewed verbally with the patient and escort, and they must be signed by the patient or escort, if the patient is incapable. Both must be aware of the need to contact the facility in the event of untoward reac-tions or any difficulties that may arise such as bleeding, headache, severe pain, or unrelenting nausea or vomiting. The majority of postoperative complications occur after the patient has been discharged. Therefore, it is important to ensure comprehension of all information by the patient or designated escort (Table 77.6).


Most states have a mandatory requirement that patients who have received other than a local anesthetic be dis-charged in the company of a responsible adult. Current definitions of “responsible adult” vary and may be broad-ened to include emancipated minors or responsible older children. Theoretically, the companion should be willing and able to remain with the patient for at least the first 24 hours after surgery. This is especially important when deal-ing with the geriatric or debilitated patient. Problems may arise when an octogenarian patient is discharged in the company of an octogenarian spouse. Ideally, two adults should accompany pediatric patients from recovery room to home. After discharge, a child may suddenly experience nausea or vomiting, pain, fright, or disorientation. A par-ent who is driving a car cannot possibly attend to both responsibilities simultaneously.


A clear distinction is made between “home readiness” and “street fitness.” Home readiness signals that the time has arrived to discharge the patient from the recovery area. On the other hand, “street fitness” is attained after approximately 24 hours have elapsed, when most of the more subtle and persistent central nervous system effects of general anesthesia have dissipated. Patients must be advised not to resume normal activities immediately upon returning home.


Formal discharge criteria must be in place, and final evaluations should be conducted immediately before a patient’s discharge from the unit. All perturbations from normal, including vital signs and unusual symptoms, must be addressed.


Every attempt must be made to avoid premature dis-charge of the patient from the PACU. The consequences of such faulty judgments may include the necessity for emer-gency care elsewhere and possible readmission to another health care facility. When any element of doubt exists as to the stability or suitability of a patient for discharge, the better part of valor is to arrange for hospital admission for overnight observation.


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