ABCDEF Overview

Delirium Prevention and Safety: Starting with the ABCDEF’s

It is essential to consider delirium management in the broader picture of ICU patient care as a major piece of the current guidelines for Pain, Agitation, Delirium, Immobility, and Sleep Disruption (PADIS) from the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM). Advancements in research and technology are resulting in higher acuity and increased complexity of care, which is resulting in drastic increases in workload and demands on staff. More than ever, there is a great need to develop simpler ways of implementing safer and better care into practice for our sickest patients.

The ABCDEF bundle is one way to align and coordinate care, which includes specific focus on delirium as a component of the overall care patients receive including sedation and pain medications, breathing machines, and mobilization.

What are the components of the ABCDEF bundle?

  • A

    Assess, Prevent, and Manage Pain

    There are validated tools that are recommended that can be used in every patient every day.

  • B

    Both Spontaneous Awakening Trials & Spontaneous Breathing Trials

    This means providing powerful medications when needed but stopping them when unnecessary to avoid over-use and unwanted side effects.

  • C

    Choice of Analgesia and Sedation

    Published evidence helps the team decide which are the safest sedatives and analgesics to use and which are the most important medications to avoid for a specific patient’s circumstances.

  • D

    Delirium: Assess, Prevent and Manage

    There are validated tools that are recommended that can be used in every patient every day. We will dive deeper into this aspect, DELIRIUM, in the page below.

  • E

    Early Mobility and Exercise

    This step involves optimizing mobility and exercise for every patient to the best of her or his ability (through the help of any member of the team assigned to perform this piece of care) and advancing that daily as clinically able.

  • F

    Family Engagement and Empowerment

    Good communication with the family is critical at every step of a patient’s clinical course, and empowering the family to be part of the team to ensure best care is adhered to diligently will improve many aspects of the patient’s experience. The F was recently added to help to keep patients and families as the center and focus of care.

Think of the ABCDEFs as a means of putting best practice into the real world of your ICU. Why use a mnemonic? Because it provides a sticky (i.e., easy to remember) message, and it is evidence based (all created from data published in high impact journals such as JAMA, Lancet, and NEJM). Outcomes of mechanically ventilated patients can be improved if the interventions described in the ABCDEF approach are used together as a bundle (M Balas CCM 2014) and discussed regularly on rounds with your interdisciplinary team. To ensure that bundles remain scientifically credible and have the maximum possible impact on outcomes, periodic updating based on new evidence is critical. The ABCDEF bundle, in accordance with the Society of Critical Care Medicine’s 2013 Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Pain, Agitation, Delirium, Immobility, and Sleep Disruption (PADIS) in Adult ICU Patients, must include routine pain, agitation, and delirium screening and management through the use of valid and reliable tools. These tools are well outlined in the PADIS Guidelines and many are available on this website.

So what is a BUNDLE anyway?

This is a published conversation that took place within the largest quality improvement organization in the U.S. called the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). The IHI's Rethinking Critical Care program has incorporated concepts related to the ABCDEFs and the PADIS Guidelines that can be found on their website.

Commonly misunderstood aspects of the ABCDEFs are as follows:

  • MYTH: The ABCDEFs and PADIS are advocating different things.
  • TRUTH: These are similar constructs. As noted above, think of the ABCDEFs as a way of operationalizing the PADIS guidelines. There are many ways of going about this; the ABCDEF Bundle is just one way of talking about and organizing this “new culture” of lighter sedation, attention to delirium, and early mobility. Just like the PADIS does advocate early mobility even though mobility is not explicitly stated in the title, so Pain is also included in the ABCDEFs even though that mnemonic doesn’t include a “P.”
  • MYTH: If an ICU is not completely turning off sedative medications, it is not embracing SATs or the ABCDEFs.
  • TRUTH: The original ABC study, as well as other subsequent publications and quality improvement projects have prioritized the concept of a “complete shut off” of sedation and analgesia once the patient is felt to be pain free and passes the SAT safety screen. However, there are hospitals in general or specific patients in whom a reduction in sedative dose without a complete shut-off is indicated for safety reasons. This SAT and SBT approach supported by the NEJM and Lancet studies is not a “one shoe fits all.” We must use clinical judgment. If the reason we are leaving the potent sedative medications going in our patients is mostly because “that is our culture” or the staff are too busy to deal with an interactive patient, then that likely needs to be re-evaluated and solutions found.

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