Patient Care

Evaluating a Program Process Change to Improve Completion of Foot Exams and Amputation Risk Assessments for Veterans with Diabetes

A quality improvement initiative significantly increased the number of veterans receiving thorough foot exams and amputation risk assessments as well as the number of appropriate podiatry referrals.

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Individuals with diabetes mellitus (DM), peripheral vascular disease, or end-stage renal disease are at risk for a nontraumatic lower limb amputation.1 Veterans have a high number of risk factors and are especially vulnerable. More than 70% of veterans enrolled in US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare are at increased risk for developing DM due to excess weight, poor eating habits, and physical inactivity.2 One in 4 veterans has DM, compared with 1 in 6 in the general population.2

DM can lead to long-term complications including limb amputations. Annually in the US about 73,000 nontraumatic lower limb amputations are performed and > 60% occur among persons with DM.3 Complications from diabetic wounds are the cause of 90% of lower limb amputations, and foot ulcers are the most prevalent complication.4 Diabetic ulcers are slow to heal due to vascular impairments and nerve damage.5 Peripheral vascular disease, a common comorbid condition, contributes to restricted blood flow and can lead to tissue death or gangrene requiring amputation.6

Between 2010 and 2014, VA Portland Healthcare System (VAPORHCS) had one of the highest national amputation rates in VA.7 A clinical chart review found that annual foot examinations and amputation risk assessments (ARAs) were not completed with all at-risk veterans. In 2013, a VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) national report found that more than one-third of veterans enrolled in VA with DM had no documentation of required annual foot exams.8 In 2017, VA released Directive 1410, which outlined the scope of care required to prevent and treat lower limb complications and amputations for veterans at risk for primary or secondary limb loss.1 This national initiative is a comprehensive approach that engages multiprofessional teams to perform routine foot examinations and amputation risk assessments; identify and promptly treat foot ulcers; track, monitor and educate at-risk veterans; and participate in clinical education to enhance staff skills.

To decrease the amputation rate, VAPORHCS redesigned its foot-care program to comply with the national initiative. As is typical in VA, VAPORHCS uses a team-based approach in primary care. The basic 4-member team patient-aligned care team (PACT) consists of a physician or nurse practitioner (NP) primary care provider (PCP), a registered nurse (RN) care manager, a licensed practical nurse (LPN), and a medical staff assistant (MSA) for administrative support. Each PACT cares for about 1,800 veterans. Formerly, LPNs completed the annual diabetic foot exams, and PCPs verified the exams and completed the ARA based on the LPNs’ findings. If patients were moderate risk or high risk, they were referred to podiatry. The VAPORHCS audit found that not all at-risk veterans had both the foot exam and ARA completed, or were referred to podiatry when indicated. There was a need for a process improvement project to develop a seamless program consisting of all recommended foot care components crucial for timely care.

This quality improvement project sought to evaluate the effectiveness of the process changes by examining PCPs’ adoption of, and consistency in completing annual diabetic foot exams and ARAs with veterans. The goals of the project were to evaluate changes in the: (1) Number of accurate diabetic foot exams and amputation risk assessments completed with veterans with DM; (2) Number and timeliness of appropriate referrals to podiatry for an in-depth assessment and treatment of veterans found to be at moderate-to-high risk for lower limb amputations; and (3) Number of administrative text orders entered by PCPs for nurse care managers to offer foot care education and the completion of the education with veterans found to be at normal-to-low risk for lower limb amputations. The institutional review boards of VAPORHCS and Gonzaga University approved the study.

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