VA is using a surprisingly simple life-saving weapon and it’s not new, nor is it high-tech: It’s a toothbrush, and along with good oral hygiene, it can prevent deaths from pneumonia.
Poor oral hygiene is associated with a greater chance of developing pneumonia in hospitals. “That’s because not taking care of teeth can lead to plaque which creates a bacteria-friendly environment in the mouth,” said Suzanne Hook, chief nurse for Administration/Operations at the VA Maryland Health Care System. “That bacteria can easily travel down the throat and into the lungs, causing a pneumonia infection. And pneumonia can lead to sepsis, which is nearly always fatal to vulnerable patients.”
Consistent oral care cuts risk of pneumonia
“Providing consistent oral care to Veterans in hospitals and long-term care residents cuts the risk of developing hospital-acquired pneumonia in half, thus saving lives,” Hook said.
Pictured above, dentist Karen Phillips demonstrates proper brushing to Veteran James Howard, assisted by nurse Star Johnson.
Dentist Karen Phillips reinforces the importance of oral hygiene with Veteran William Higdon, assisted by nurse Angelica Albanese.
Hook leads nurses at the VA Maryland Health Care System in an initiative to achieve zero hospital acquired pneumonias related to mouth care. She works in collaboration with Dental and other services, using Project HAPPEN, (Hospital Acquired Pneumonia Prevention by Engaging Nurses to provide oral care). Project HAPPEN began at the Salem VA Medical Center in 2016.
A best practice throughout VA
Project HAPPEN significantly reduces rates of pneumonia in hospitalized patients. It is a best practice throughout VA for its ability to save lives.
Oral care is not new at the VA Maryland Health Care System. Staff document it daily in a patient’s records, a practice already established with intensive care patients.
The program is becoming available to all levels of care. The roll out is starting with Veterans residing in community living centers and acute care patients.
Eventually, efforts to raise awareness about the link between daily basic oral care and pneumonia will extend to all staff and Veterans receiving outpatient care throughout the health care system.
Positive impact for Veteran patients
“In terms of money and time, the investment per hospitalized patient is minimal,” Hook said. “Just a few dollars for supplies – toothbrushes, toothpaste, denture cleaner, lip moisturizers – and a few minutes per nursing shift to perform oral care for each patient or to remind those who are able to, to do it themselves. We like to say, we’re making things HAPPEN. And we’re excited about the positive impact Project HAPPEN can have for our Veteran patients.”
Ming T. Vincenti is a public affairs specialist and the community outreach coordinator for the VA Maryland Health Care System.