First-year medical students typically read about BP measurement in a textbook and possibly attend a lecture before practicing using a manual cuff a few times on classmates, said Martha Gulati, MD, professor and director of preventive cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.
The dearth of BP instruction is alarming because inaccurate readings contribute to under- and overtreatment of hypertension, she said in an interview.
The AMA hopes $100,000 in grants to five health education schools will help improve BP instruction. The group recently announced it would give $20,000 each to five schools that train health professionals, expanding on a 2021 program to improve BP measurement training.
The new grants for interactive lessons will benefit nearly 5,000 students from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; University of Washington, Seattle; Stony Brook (N.Y.) University; and the University of Pittsburgh.
In a 2021 survey of 571 clinicians, most of whom were cardiologists, Dr. Gulati found that only 23% performed accurate BP measurements despite the majority saying they trusted BP readings taken in their clinic. Accurate readings were defined as routinely checking BP in both arms, checking BP at least twice each visit, and waiting 5 minutes before taking the reading.
Med students fare no better when it comes to BP skills. In a 2017 study of 159 students from medical schools in 37 states, only one student demonstrated proficiency in all 11 elements necessary to measure BP accurately. Students, on average, performed just four of them correctly.
The elements of proper BP measurement include patients resting for 5 minutes before the measurement with legs uncrossed, feet on floor, and arm supported, not talking, reading, or using cell phone; BP taken in both arms with correct size of cuff placed over bare arm; and identifying BP from the arm with the higher reading as clinically more important and as the one to use for future readings.
Manual BP readings require an appropriately sized BP cuff, a sphygmomanometer, and a clinician skilled in using a stethoscope and auscultatory method. Meanwhile, automated readings require a clinician to place the cuff, but a digital device collects the measurement. Though preference depends on the setting and clinician, automated readings are more common. In Dr. Gulati’s study, automated BP assessment was used by 58% of respondents.
Depending on the BP device and technique, significant variations in readings can occur. In a 2021 study, Current Hypertension Reports found that automated readings may more closely reflect the patient’s baseline BP and produce results similar to ambulatory monitoring by a medical professional. An earlier JAMA Internal Medicine analysis found that clinicians’ manual readings reflect higher BP measurements than automated readings.
Though the AMA offers a free online series on BP measurement for students, making the training available to more health care team members can help prevent hypertension, said Kate Kirley, MD, director of the AMA’s chronic disease prevention and programs.
Concern over the lack of standardized BP techniques isn’t new. In 2019, the American Heart Association and the AMA created an online BP course for health care workers. Two years later, the AMA offered grants to five medical schools for training courses.
Most of the new training sessions already on the AMA website take students about 15 minutes to complete. Dr. Kirley says because equipment varies across settings, participants will learn how to conduct manual, semi-automated, and automated office BP readings and identify workarounds for less-than-ideal room setups that can skew results. They will also explore how to guide patients in performing BP readings at home.
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