Beyond statistical prediction: qualitative evaluation of the mechanisms by which pediatric early warning scores impact patient safety

J Hosp Med. 2013 May;8(5):248-53. doi: 10.1002/jhm.2026. Epub 2013 Mar 13.


Background: Early warning scores (EWSs) assign points to clinical observations and generate scores to help clinicians identify deteriorating patients. Despite marginal predictive accuracy in retrospective datasets and a paucity of studies prospectively evaluating their clinical effectiveness, pediatric EWSs are commonly used.

Objective: To identify mechanisms beyond their statistical ability to predict deterioration by which physicians and nurses use EWSs to support their decision making.

Design: Qualitative study.

Setting: A children's hospital with a rapid response system.

Participants: Physicians and nurses who recently cared for patients with false-positive and false-negative EWSs (score failures).

Intervention: Semistructured interviews.

Measurements: Themes identified through grounded theory analysis.

Results: Four themes emerged among the 57 subjects interviewed: (1) The EWS facilitates safety by alerting physicians and nurses to concerning changes and prompting them to think critically about deterioration. (2) The EWS provides less-experienced nurses with vital sign reference ranges. (3) The EWS serves as evidence that empowers nurses to overcome barriers to escalating care. (4) In stable patients, those with baseline abnormal physiology, and those experiencing neurologic deterioration, the EWS may not be helpful.

Conclusions: Although pediatric EWSs have marginal performance when applied to datasets, clinicians who recently experienced score failures still considered them valuable to identify deterioration and transcend hierarchical barriers. Combining an EWS with a clinician's judgment may result in a system better equipped to respond to deterioration than retrospective data analyses alone would suggest. Future research should seek to evaluate the clinical effectiveness of EWSs in real-world settings.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation / standards
  • Female
  • Hospital Rapid Response Team / standards*
  • Hospitals, Pediatric / standards*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nurses / trends*
  • Patient Safety / standards*
  • Physicians / standards*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Time Factors