Brisbane vascular research leads the world in innovation

A Brisbane based research group has challenged a 50-year tradition in health care, saving hospitals around the world millions of dollars and improving the comfort of countless patients.

Professor Claire Rickard

Led by Professor Claire Rickard, Brisbane’s Alliance for Vascular Access Teaching and Research (AVATAR), the largest vascular access research group in the world, discovered that the common practice of removing patient’s peripheral catheter every three days is unnecessary. 

A peripheral catheter is a small, flexible tube placed in a vein to administer medication or fluids or to draw blood. 

Professor Rickard, who has been at the helm of the Griffith University-based AVATAR group for the past decade, said this was just one of hundreds of research projects the group had conducted, with the aim of finding the best and most proven way of doing things in the vascular access field. 

“There are many practices in hospitals that have become routine over time, but often not because they are necessarily the best way of doing something,” she said. 

“We know that 90 per cent of patients in a hospital have a peripheral catheter but the policies around them aren’t necessarily made by people right there at the bedside” .  

“This study challenged a 50-year tradition in health care. It was thought that small peripheral catheters in the arm veins needed to be taken out every 72 hours to prevent infection and vein irritation, even if they were still comfortable and had no complications,” Prof Rickard, who is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, said. 

AVATAR studies of more than 4000 patients found that leaving a functioning catheter in place until it was no longer required did not lead to infection or other complications. 

The findings mean hundreds of millions of dollars saved in purchasing new catheters, as well as savings in  staff hours, less medical waste and millions of patients being spared an unnecessary and often painful procedure. 

Since the largest study was published in 2011, health bodies around the world - including the UK’s National Health Service, the US Government’s Centres for Disease Control and the Infusion Nursing Society Standards of Practice - have changed or are changing their guidelines to reflect the study findings. 

While it is perhaps AVATAR’s best-known research project, it certainly isn’t the only one, with the group of more than 100 researchers working on up to 80 projects at any time. 

The Griffith University team, based in Brisbane is also looking to change the way catheters are monitored across the world with the development of a standard monitoring tool to replace the current 71 unvalidated tools that currently exist worldwide. This will give healthcare providers valuable data and benchmarks around catheter failure and other issues. 

Infusion tubing is another current area of study for AVATAR which has recently completed a trial of 2500 patients to see how long infusion tubing (the tubes used to get fluid from its bag to the catheter and into the vein) can be used. Dressings are also on the project list with AVATAR testing whether it’s better to use an antiseptic dressing as opposed to a standard plain dressing. Also, whether there is a dressing that more successfully secures a catheter to the skin, instead of using the current approach of dressings plus additional tapes and devices. 

Professor Rickard said Brisbane was a prime location for the AVATAR team, because it was big enough to have a strong and knowledgeable industry of experts to collaborate with on research projects, as well as access to the most modern scientific equipment.

“Brisbane is a really good-sized city to research from and live in. We have a lot of big healthcare systems and lots of diversity but it isn’t so big that it’s locked down in some of the traditions of older cities,” she said.

“Brisbane is such a young international city; we’re close to Asia; and there is just so much growth in this area.”