Hyperkalemia is a common, potentially life-threatening disorder. Electrocardiograms are considered to be sensitive indicators of the presence of hyperkalemia. Since the treatment of hyperkalemia involves relatively few maneuvers and because its success can be objectively scored, we investigated how physicians manage this disorder and how successful their prescribed therapy is. We also sought to determine whether treatment could be improved by providing the treating physicians with therapy guidelines on a real-time basis.
Consecutive patients with hyperkalemia were identified by review of laboratory records. During the observation-only phase of the study, demographic data, contributing causes, electrocardiogram findings, treatments used, compliance with prescribing guidelines, and patient outcome were recorded. During the subsequent notification phase of the study, treatment recommendations were sent to the patient's ward when the elevated potassium value was noted. The same outcome data were collected.
There were 127 episodes of hyperkalemia during the observation-only phase and 115 during the notification phase. No patients died or had life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias. Electrocardiographic abnormalities consistent with hyperkalemia were observed in only 14% of episodes. Renal failure (77%), drugs (63%), and hyperglycemia (49%) contributed to most episodes. Treatments used were exchange resin (51%), insulin (46%), calcium (36%), bicarbonate (34%), and albuterol (4%). The agents were equally efficacious. The time to first treatment was shorter in patients with potassium levels of 6.5 mmol/L or more than in patients with lower values (2.1±2.2 vs 2.8±2.4 hours; P<.05). Treatment was better in the intensive care unit than on regular wards. Only 39% of episodes during the observation-only period met the predetermined criteria for monitoring and diagnosis, initial treatment, and follow-up. During the notification period, physician performance was no better; only 42% of episodes met all criteria. The laboratory transmitted a copy of the guidelines to the patient's ward only 38% of the time. In a separate analysis of these episodes, there was no improvement in treatment. Physicians who did not receive the notification fulfilled all treatment criteria more often than physicians who did (50% vs 30%; P<.05).
Although treatment of hyperkalemia was frequently suboptimal, no serious arrhythmias and no deaths complicated management of 242 episodes of severe hyperkalemia. A narrowly targeted effort to improve physician management of a disorder with discrete treatment options did not improve therapy.