Reports From the Field

A Quality Improvement Initiative to Improve Emergency Department Care for Pediatric Patients with Sickle Cell Disease



From the Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, Oakland, CA.


  • Objective: To determine whether a quality improvement (QI) initiative would result in more timely assessment and treatment of acute sickle cell–related pain for pediatric patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) treated in the emergency department (ED).
  • Methods: We created and implemented a protocol for SCD pain management in the ED with the goals of improving (1) mean time from triage to first analgesic dose; (2) percentage of patients that received their first analgesic dose within 30 minutes of triage, and (3) percentage of patients who had pain assessment performed within 30 minutes of triage and who were re-assessed within 30 minutes after the first analgesic dose.
  • Results: Significant improvements were achieved between baseline (55 patient visits) and post order set implementation (165 visits) in time from triage to administration of first analgesic (decreased from 89.9 ± 50.5 to 35.2 ± 22.8 minutes, P < 0.001); percentage of patient visits receiving pain medications within 30 minutes of triage (from 7% to 53%, P < 0.001); percentage of patient visits assessed within 30 minutes of triage (from 64% to 99.4%, P < 0.001); and percentage of patient visits re-assessed within 30 minutes of initial analgesic (from 54% to 86%, P < 0.001).
  • Conclusions: Implementation of a QI initiative in the ED led to expeditious care for pediatric patients with SCD presenting with pain. A QI framework provided us with unique challenges but also invaluable lessons as we address our objective of decreasing the quality gap in SCD medical care.

Pain is the leading cause of emergency department (ED) visits for patients with sickle cell disease (SCD) [1]. In the United States, 78% of the nearly 200,000 annual ED visits for SCD are for a complaint of pain [1]. Guidelines for the management of sickle cell vaso-occlusive pain episodes (VOE) suggest prompt initiation of parenteral opioids, use of effective opioid doses, and repeat opioid doses at frequent intervals [2–4]. Adherence to guidelines is poor. Both pediatric and adult patients with SCD experience delays in the initiation of analgesics and are routinely undertreated with respect to opioid dosing [5–8]. Even after controlling for race, the delays in time to analgesic administration experienced by patients with SCD exceed the delays encountered by patients who present to the ED with other types of pain [5,9]. These disparities warrant efforts designed to improve the delivery of quality care to patients with SCD.

Barriers to rapid and appropriate care of VOE in the ED are multifactorial and include systems-based limitations, such as acuity of the ED census, staffing limitations (eg, nurse-to-patient ratios), and facility limitations (eg, room availability) [6]. Provider-based limitations may include lack of awareness of available guidelines [10]. Biases and misunderstandings amongst providers about sickle cell pain and adequate medication dosing may also play a role [11–13]. These provider biases often lead to undertreatment of the pain, which in turn can lead to pseudoaddiction (drug-seeking behavior due to inadequate treatment) and a cycle of increased ED and inpatient utilization [14,15].


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