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New risk assessment tool aims to help nurses prevent VTE

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The Department of Health has published a thromboembolism risk assessment strategy, recommended for use with all patients on admission to hospital. Nerys Hairon reports

The Department of Health has published a tool for use in assessing hospital patients’ risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) (DH, 2008a; 2008b). The condition is responsible for the deaths of around 25,000 hospital patients in England each year.

The tool is recommended for use with all patients on admission to hospital and was developed after an expert group recommended that hospital patients be assessed for risk of VTE (DH and CMO, 2007). Announcing the launch of the tool, the chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, said it had the potential to save thousands of lives each year.

The risk assessment includes a series of patient-related risk factors (click here) and involves a three-step process (see Box 1). Nurses can use it to systematically evaluate patients’ risk on admission. Go to to download the tool.


Venous thromboembolism is the formation of a blood clot (thrombus) in a vein. This may dislodge from its site of origin to cause an embolism. Most thrombi occur in the deep veins of the legs - this is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Dislodged thrombi may travel to the lungs - this is called a pulmonary embolism (PE) and can be fatal. Thrombi can also cause long-term morbidity because of venous insufficiency and post-thrombotic syndrome, potentially leading to venous ulceration.

Background to risk assessment

The publication of the risk assessment is the culmination of several years of work to prevent VTE.

The Commons health select committee reported on the prevention of VTE in hospitalised patients in March 2005 (House of Commons Health Committee, 2005). In its published response, the government recognised there was no systematic approach to identifying patients at risk of VTE in hospital and there was significant room for improvement (DH, 2005).

Ministers asked for a VTE expert group to be set up to look at how best practice and guidance could be implemented.

The working group recommended that a documented mandatory risk assessment should be carried out on every hospitalised patient on admission (DH and CMO, 2007), and that this should be embedded within the Clinical Negligence Scheme for Trusts.

The group called for the DH to set core standards for the NHS and the independent sector, to ensure ‘there is ultimately 100% compliance with the requirement for risk assessment of each and every adult admitted to hospital in England’. It added that the Healthcare Commission should monitor compliance through its assessment and inspection procedures.

The DH and CMO (2007) also recommended that public and professional understanding of VTE should be improved at a national level, through better communication of information to patients and the public. This should be accompanied by improved and coordinated programmes of professional education.

Following publication of the group’s report, an implementation working group was established to develop a risk assessment and raise awareness of VTE.

BOX 1: Risk assessment for VTE


  • Review the patient-related factors shown on the assessment sheet (see opposite) against thrombosis risk, ticking each box that applies. Use the highest category of risk if more than one box is ticked (for example if both moderate and high risk are ticked, use guidance for high-risk patients).
  • Any tick for thrombosis risk should prompt thromboprophylaxis according to local policy.
  • The risk factors identified are not exhaustive. Practitioners may consider additional risks in individual patients and offer thromboprophylaxis as appropriate.


  • Review the patient-related factors shown against bleeding risk and tick each box that applies.
  • Any tick for bleeding risk should prompt clinical staff to consider if bleeding risk is sufficient to preclude pharmacological intervention.


  • If the risk assessment form has been completed correctly and no boxes have been ticked, then the patient is at a low risk of developing VTE and no intervention is indicated.

Source: DH (2008b)


The DH’s VTE expert working group made a number of recommendations on preventing VTE in clinical practice (DH and CMO, 2007).

It said all medical patients should be considered for thromboprophylaxis. In particular, this applies to those who are likely to be in hospital for longer than four days and have reduced mobility, with severe heart failure, respiratory failure (due to exacerbation of chronic lung disease or pneumonia), acute infection, inflammatory illness or cancer (with additional risk factors for VTE).

Such patients should be considered for a regimen involving heparins. While both unfractionated and low-molecular weight forms are effective preventive treatments, low-molecular weight heparins (LMWH) are the preferred prophylactic. Aspirin was not recommended for thromboprophylaxis in medical patients.

The expert group did not recommend mechanical methods of prevention as these had not yet been evaluated in acutely ill medical patients (DH and CMO, 2007). It also made recommendations for intermediate-risk and low-risk surgical patients. For high-risk surgical/orthopaedic patients it referred practitioners to the relevant NICE (2007) guidance.

Surgical inpatients

NICE (2007) guidance covers all adult patients admitted to hospital for surgery requiring an overnight stay and focuses on procedures carrying a high risk of VTE (Hairon, 2007). Formation of thrombi is associated with inactivity and surgical procedures, and the risk rises with the duration of surgery and period of immobility.

The guidance contains a section on each of the following procedures:

  • Elective orthopaedic surgery (for example total hip or knee replacement);
  • Hip fracture surgery;
  • General surgery;
  • Gynaecological surgery (excluding caesarean section);
  • Cardiac surgery;
  • Thoracic surgery;
  • Urological surgery;
  • Neurosurgery (including spinal surgery);
  • Vascular surgery.

Practitioners are advised to exercise their clinical judgement when making decisions on the appropriateness of VTE prophylaxis for patients undergoing other procedures requiring an inpatient stay.

The NICE guidance outlines a number of key priorities, focusing on risk assessment, patient information, mechanical prophylaxis, drug prophylaxis and early mobilisation.

Healthcare staff should assess patients to identify their risk factors for developing VTE and give them verbal and written information, before surgery, about the risks of VTE and the effectiveness of prophylaxis.

Inpatients having surgery should be offered thigh-length graduated compression/anti-embolism stockings from the time of admission unless contraindicated (for example in patients with established peripheral arterial disease or diabetic neuropathy).

If thigh-length stockings are inappropriate for reasons of compliance or fit, the guidance says that knee-length stockings may be used as an alternative.

Intermittent pneumatic compression or foot impulse devices may be used as alternatives or in addition to graduated compression/anti-embolism stockings while patients are in hospital.

In addition to mechanical prophylaxis, patients at increased risk of VTE due to individual risk factors and those having orthopaedic surgery should be offered LMWH. Fondaparinux, within its licensed indications, may be used as an alternative to LMWH. For hip-fracture patients, LMWH/fondaparinux therapy should be continued for four weeks after surgery; this also applies to those having a hip replacement who have one or more risk factors for VTE.

NICE says that regional anaesthesia carries a lower risk of VTE than general anaesthesia. Its suitability for an individual patient and procedure should be considered, along with patient preferences, in addition to any other planned method of thromboprophylaxis.

Practitioners should encourage patients to be mobile as soon as possible after surgery. See for guidance details.

Risk assessment

The VTE risk assessment tool is available for use by all hospitals and, according to the DH, has the potential to prevent many avoidable deaths. It was developed with key stakeholders, including NICE. Supporting guidance from NICE for all hospital patients is scheduled for publication in autumn 2009.

The tool states that risk assessment should be undertaken on all patients on admission to hospital.

In addition, it is recommended that all patients are periodically reassessed during their inpatient stay as their risk of VTE may change, and reassessment after at least 48-72 hours is recommended (DH, 2008b).

The risk assessment tool is not intended for use in pregnant women, for whom practitioners should refer to Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidance for obstetric patients (RCOG, 2004).


The risk assessment presents a simple three-step guide to patient evaluation, with risk factors clearly outlined. It should help nurses to improve patient care, by standardising risk assessment practice.

Click here to see the risk assesment for VTE

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Readers' comments (1)

  • RE New risk assessment tool aims to help nurses prevent VTE
    Published: 30 September 2008 15:27 Last Updated: 30 September 2008 15:27
    Thank you for your excellent article on risk assessment tools to prevent VTE.
    It is evident that a great deal of work has been initiated to guide hospital nurses in terms of risk assessment and prevention. However, as a primary care nurse and educator I am aware that there is little awareness of this important subject within primary care.
    The risk assessment tool is just one part of a continuum of care which should involve primary care both pre and post admission to hospital.
    Primary care nurses are in a perfect position to educate and make the patient aware of the risk of VTE before admission and be responsible for ensuring continued adherence to thromboprophylaxis when discharged home.
    As a result of this gap of knowledge and to encourage primary care awareness Birmingham University, Department of Primary Care now run regular training days aimed at primary care health care professionals to cover the extent of the problem, and how primary care teams can involve themselves in this very important health priority. If anyone would like information please contact me

    Ellen Murray, Practice Nurse and Senior Lecturer Department of Primary care, University of Birmingham

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