Only half of all the patients admitted to Oslo University Hospital with suspected stroke in 2018 were directly admitted by ambulance. The remaining patients came from the out-of-hours primary healthcare service, a GP practice or another hospital, or they came directly to the A&E department.
The findings of this study show that fewer patients in the youngest age quartile were discharged with a stroke-related diagnosis compared with the oldest quartile. The patients admitted by ambulance were significantly older and more often received a stroke-related diagnosis than those arriving via the out-of-hours primary healthcare service or a GP practice. The reason that younger patients contacted the out-of-hours service first may be that they had milder or atypical symptoms, so that conditions other than stroke were assessed as more likely (5, 6).
Another reason may be that doctors have a lower threshold for admitting younger patients if stroke is suspected because the consequences of misdiagnosis may result in the patient having to live with long-term effects for the rest of their lives.
The reason why the ambulance service is more able to recognise stroke-related symptoms may be that they are most likely to be contacted when the patient is showing obvious symptoms of a stroke. It is important to note that, in this material, the clinical assessment of the patient is performed by the ambulance crew, making this the only category in the pre-hospital pathway where the patient is not assessed by a doctor.
Doggen et al. showed that almost half of the stroke patients contacted the out-of-hours primary healthcare service or a GP practice prior to arriving at the stroke unit, and half of the patients who had contacted their GP were transported to hospital by ambulance. The remainder used private transportation. The average time from the onset of symptoms to arrival at the A&E department was 240 minutes, and half of the patients waited more than four hours before seeking medical advice (6).
A Norwegian study showed that patients who contacted an ordinary GP practice had less severe neurological symptoms and a greater delay in admission than patients who contacted the Emergency Medical Communications Centre (AMK) (5, 6).
If the time from the patient’s first contact with the health service until their arrival in hospital is prolonged, this may mean that fewer patients receive reperfusion therapy. Data from the Norwegian Stroke Registry shows that in 2018, only 45 per cent of patients with suspected stroke were admitted to Ullevål Hospital within four hours of symptom onset (2).
The results indicate that there is a need to provide the public with more information in the form of new campaigns that can boost knowledge of risk factors in the population and show the importance of contacting the AMK when stroke is suspected (7–9).
Need for pre-hospital competence
Pre-hospital competence is vital for all professional groups working in the various parts of the health service in non-hospital settings, whether home-based nursing care, GP practices, local emergency medical communication centres, the out-of-hours primary healthcare service, AMK, ambulance, air ambulance or the A&E department.
The key role of RNs and ambulance personnel involves being able to suspect and recognise stroke on the basis of the patient’s symptoms. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary cooperation vis-à-vis the patient must also ensure swift and correct treatment and care.
Hospital referral via the out-of-hours primary healthcare services and GP practices may entail a delay for patients with suspected stroke (6). It is crucial that the general public has more knowledge about stroke symptoms and the need to call the emergency number 113. Moreover, staff in medical emergency services (AMK and local emergency medical communication centres), the ambulance service, RNs and doctors in the primary healthcare service must be better equipped to identify patients with suspected stroke (10).
Conducting a high-quality pre-hospital clinical assessment would be challenging because it requires pre-hospital personnel to have excellent assessment skills, and there are few screening tools available (10).
A study from Oslo University Hospital has led to competence enhancement among ambulance personnel as they have adopted the same screening tool as doctors in the stroke unit for patients with suspected stroke, namely the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) (11).
This scale has been developed as a mobile app for clinical decision support, and it functions as both a communication tool and electronic documentation. The results of the study were published in 2022. A national plan should be devised for the skills development and training of pre-hospital personnel in identifying a stroke, including recognition of the symptoms and the use of NIHSS, for example.
The challenge is that the symptom profile can resemble stroke but might have a different cause – in other words, ‘a stroke chameleon’, i.e. a condition assessed as something other than stroke, where stroke is thus overlooked (12).
A final diagnosis must be made after advanced in-hospital diagnostics, something that is impossible to achieve with the currently available pre-hospital tools. This means that in the case of a highly complex condition such as stroke, we can assume that patients admitted with suspected stroke will often be discharged with a different diagnosis. Hospitals must therefore take into account that a number of the patients admitted will not receive a stroke diagnosis, so-called overtriage (12).
In other words, it is not merely expertise in the form of clinical understanding that is necessary but also access to advanced medical equipment. Early pre-hospital identification of stroke and the correct level of triage may result in more patients receiving acute treatment.
Symptoms of stroke may be non-specific and assessing them is complex, so good communication and the use of a common language between pre-hospital services and stroke unit doctors are essential. We need to improve pre-hospital diagnostics of acute stroke so that in the future, more patients can be treated within the critical time window (9).
Strengths and weaknesses of the study
A strength of this study is that it includes a complete dataset of patients admitted with suspected stroke and assessed at an A&E department with a high volume of patients. The quality indicators are the same as in the Norwegian Stroke Registry. The generalisability of the results to other parts of Norway depends on several factors, such as distance to and accessibility of a hospital, out-of-hours primary healthcare service and GP practice.
A weakness of the study is the lack of clinical data including risk factors, neurological examination and the etiology of the stroke. Another weakness is that our data material is obtained from only one data source. We obtained data about the referral unit by extracting data registered by healthcare personnel in the electronic patient record.
We were unable to check or verify other sources such as patient records in the primary health service, AMK’s computer assisted dispatch system, ambulance records or direct access to hospital records.
In addition, it would have been useful if the time from symptom debut to admission had been registered for the different categories, particularly for the quality indicator ‘four hours from symptom debut to hospital admission’. Our material also fails to describe whether patients admitted via the out-of-hours service or the GP practice had contacted the AMK first, or if they were transported to the GP practice by ambulance first for a more detailed assessment prior to hospital admission.
A large percentage of patients admitted to hospital with suspected stroke do not arrive by ambulance. Those who arrive by ambulance were significantly older than patients who arrived via the out-of-hours primary healthcare service. Fewer patients in the youngest age quartile were discharged with a stroke-related diagnosis compared with the oldest quartile.
It is important to strengthen competence in pre-hospital services, including the home-based nursing service, in order to ensure direct admission to hospital for diagnostics and acute treatment.