Professor of Nursing, Claire Rickard from Griffith University has been made a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. This is the first year the honour has been extended to nurses.
Professor Rickard is Director of the Griffith based Alliance for Vascular Access Teaching and Research (AVATAR), the largest research group in the world investigating intravascular access. And the success of their work can be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars of reduced health care costs world-wide, as well as improved patient comfort.
Peripheral intravenous catheters, usually inserted into a patient's hand or arm, are the most commonly used device in hospitals around the world with an estimated 300 million used in USA each year and 14 million in Australia.
"It doesn't matter what health issues you have; whether you are treated in an ambulance or a hospital; whether you have cancer, or you need hydration or antibiotics; whenever you need sustained access to a blood vessel to provide treatment, a catheter must be inserted into a vein or artery," Professor Rickard said.
"At AVATAR we have a really experienced, large group of researchers with very strong scientific skills particularly in vascular access, and we investigate practices in hospitals that have never been tested before to see which ones work and which ones don't."
For about 40 years, peripheral catheters were routinely replaced every few days, even if there were no problems. It was thought that doing this would minimise the risk of a blood infection, or a painful irritation within the blood vessel called phlebitis. So AVATAR undertook randomised controlled trials to see if this was true.
More than three thousand patients were involved in the study funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and it was found that leaving a functioning catheter in place beyond three days, until it was no longer required made absolutely no difference to the onset of infection or other complications.
These findings heralded significant change for patient comfort and health care cost savings. In the US alone, changing to the new policy of re-siting only as required policy insertions would save one million staff hours and US$400 million over five years. For Queensland Health that would amount to $5 million dollars in savings every five years.
AVATAR now has research partnerships with more than 100 hospitals and universities around the world and the influence of AVATAR is growing.
"Each week we have overseas hospitals contacting us to say they have changed their standard of practice for catheter replacement based on our research findings. In the UK it is now mandatory for all adult NHS hospitals to follow clinically indicated catheter replacement."
That is just one example of the work being undertaken by AVATAR. With another 70 research projects currently underway, even with the support of her team of 25 paid staff, much of Professor Rickard's time is now taken up with leading this powerful research alliance. But she has never lost the thrill of discovery herself.
"I still love analysing data. I love getting those results from a 2000 patient study and thinking, 'What does this mean? What is the message here?
"We want the patients to have the best experience they can, whether that means less pain or fewer infections, or reduced time in hospital because they have had more effective treatment. That's what drives us."