Monday, March 6, 2017

Alberta’s stroke teams slash time to diagnose, treat patients

  • Provincewide improvement initiative reduces average ‘door-to-needle’ time by half
Alberta Health Services - Alberta’s 17 stroke treatment centres are now among the fastest in the world in giving patients the clot-busting drug tPA (tissue Plasminogen Activator).  Thanks to a year-long quality improvement initiative, the average time it takes from a patient’s arrival at hospital to being diagnosed with stroke and injected with tPA (known as door-to-needle time) has been halved from about 70 minutes to 36 minutes.

An improvement of this degree and across such a large geographical area has not yet been reported elsewhere in the world. For example, a similar effort in the U.S. has seen average door-to-needle times in participating hospitals drop 20 per cent, from 74 minutes to 59 minutes.

“For many years now, the accepted benchmark has been to treat patients within 60 minutes of their arrival at hospital,” says Dr. Michael Hill, a Calgary-based stroke neurologist and principal investigator in a quality improvement and research program, funded by Alberta Innovates, called QuICR (pronounced ‘quicker’), Quality Improvement & Clinical Research – Alberta Stroke Program.

“But we know that by doing better, we can improve outcomes for patients by preventing or limiting long-term disabilities. And when we can give stroke patients better chances to fully recover, we also eliminate potential downstream costs to the health system,” says Dr. Hill, also a professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

During an ischemic stroke, in which blood supply to the brain is blocked, about two million brain cells die every minute and about 12 kilometres of neural connections are lost.

“One of the remarkable things that has happened in Alberta in the past year is that improvements have been made by teams in every stroke centre – not just the large hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary,” says Noreen Kamal, project manager for QuICR. “Staff in Fort McMurray, Westlock, Red Deer and smaller facilities like Grey Nuns in Edmonton have all rallied together and figured out how to significantly reduce their door-to-needle times – in some cases with limited resources at their disposal.”

Covenant Health’s Grey Nuns Hospital currently holds the provincial record for the case with the fastest door-to-needle time, at six minutes.

“Improvements like this are life-changing for Albertans, and an example of the teamwork and innovative thinking that are helping to strengthen our health system to ensure all Albertans have the care they need when they need it,” says Sarah Hoffman, Minister of Health. “This is the kind of innovation and commitment to care that makes lives better for Albertans.”

“Successes like these have been driven by staff on the front lines who worked toward a common goal,” says Dr. Thomas Jeerakathil, an Edmonton-based stroke neurologist and QuICR co-lead for Quality Improvement. “There are few other areas in medicine where the concept of ‘teamwork’ is more important.”

A patient who has had a stroke relies on the efforts of a team, which includes paramedics, emergency department nurses, registration clerks, diagnostic imaging technicians, stroke co-ordinators, emergency department physicians, radiologists and neurologists. Behind-the-scenes support from hospital administrators and managers in the emergency and diagnostic imaging departments is also critical.

Kamal, who brings a systems engineering perspective to the task, says precious minutes are saved when team members work in parallel rather than sequentially.

“A traditional clinical approach is to step through necessary tasks one at a time until a definitive diagnosis and treatment recommendation can be made,” she says. With QuICR, staff work concurrently when possible. A lab technician might draw blood while the patient has a CT scan, while elsewhere a history is being collected from a family member and the tPA is being prepared.

Shelley Castor was in a Red Deer bank last April when she started to feel dizzy and noticed her left hand and arm going limp. Her husband sped to the hospital where nurses got Castor into a wheelchair and then began swarming around her in a trauma room.

“I knew right away I was having a stroke,” Castor recalls. “I kept saying over and over, ‘I have an 11-year-old daughter at home who needs her mother – I don’t want to die.’”

Neurologist Dr. Jennifer Bestard and the stroke team at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre treated Castor with tPA in 23 minutes – not only saving her life but making a near full recovery possible.

“Improving the quality of stroke care provincewide has been made possible, in large part, through partnerships created and enhanced by AHS’ Cardiovascular Health and Stroke Strategic Clinical Network,” says Dr. Kathryn Todd, Vice President, Research, Innovation and Analytics for AHS.

“Having a network of people dedicated to improving health outcomes in specific areas ensures quality improvements spread and take root. We are very proud of accomplishments made by the QuICR teams in improving door-to-needle times. It’s so very critical; with stroke, time is brain.”

“Congratulations to the QuICR team for the tremendous work they’re doing to improve outcomes for patients by reducing stroke treatment times in Alberta,” says Laura Kilcrease, Alberta Innovates CEO. “Alberta Innovates is proud to play an integral role in supporting the QuICR team. This type of innovative and outside-the-box thinking is critical and has achieved meaningful results by improving the lives of stroke sufferers not only in Alberta, but around the world.”

  • ‘Time is brain’: seconds count when treating stroke patients 
There are 17 designated stroke centres across five Alberta Health Services zones.

Over the past year, the average time it takes to treat stroke patients with the clot-busting drug tPAfrom their time of arrival at hospital decreased across all zones.

Several organizations across Alberta have collaborated in QuICR (pronounced ‘quicker’), a quality- improvement and research program funded by Alberta Innovates:

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

Alberta Innovates delivers 21st century solutions to the most compelling challenges Albertans face. Building on our province’s strengths in environment, energy, health, food, fibre and emerging technology sectors, we work with our partners to diversify Alberta’s economy, improve our environmental performance, and enhance our well-being. Through Alberta Innovates you can access technical expertise, the opportunity to establish new partnerships, and secure funding that will catalyze innovation. We support a broad range of research and innovation activity – from discovery to application. Partner with us to innovate faster.

The University of Calgary is making tremendous progress on its journey to become one of Canada’s top five research universities, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.’ For more information, visit Stay up to date with University of Calgary news headlines on Twitter @UCalgary. For details on faculties and how to reach experts go to our media center at

The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta is a leader in educating and training exceptional practitioners and researchers of the highest international standards. The faculty’s mission is to advance health through excellence in teaching, research and patient care. It is home to one of the top 100 ranked medical schools in the world. For more information, please visit, or follow us on Twitter@Ualberta_FoMD.

Covenant Health is Canada’s largest Catholic health care organization with over 15,000 physicians, employees and volunteers serving in 12 communities across Alberta. A major provider in Alberta’s integrated health system, Covenant Health works with Alberta Health Services and community partners to positively influence the health of Albertans through a broad range of programs and services.

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