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Study shows swallowing conditions have unexpected side-effects

Researchers from South Australia have discovered through a recent study that Australians suffering from swallowing difficulties, a condition also known as dysphagia, are staying in hospital for longer periods of time than those without, adding up to $16,000 per visit.

Dysphagia is being linked to longer and costlier hospital stays (Source: Shutterstock)
Dysphagia is being linked to longer and costlier hospital stays (Source: Shutterstock)

Lead researcher in the new study Dr Stacie Attrill and Head of the Swallowing Neurorehabilitation Research Lab at the Centre for Neuroscience at Flinders University Dr Sebastian Doeltgen, along with the greater research team, conducted a systematic review of 23 cohort studies from Europe and North America which uncovered that people with dysphagia, on average, stay three days longer in hospital regardless of their diagnosis.

It was also found that these same patients cost the health care system an average of 40 percent more than people without impacted swallowing.

While the research looked into cases overseas, there are currently more than 100,000 Australians living with the effects of dysphagia as the consequence of health conditions such as stroke, Motor Neurone Disease, Parkinson’s disease, and head and neck cancer.

The condition has many negative impacts on health and can lead to choking, lung infection, malnutrition and dehydration, however, the extent and influence of this “detrimental symptom” are not widely recognised or acted on.

Dr Doeltgen, whose research focus is on using neuromodulation to improve swallowing function, says findings from the new study are an “important wake up call” for health systems around the world, and encourages action to be taken to address and reduce dysphagia-related health issues.

“This is an important opportunity to raise awareness about swallowing disorders in general, as they are a very common and costly consequence of many well-known health conditions, yet we hardly ever hear about them,” he explains.

Study co-author Dr Joanne Murray adds that it is something frequently seen in hospitals: “Patients with dysphagia tend to stay longer and recover slower than patients with the same diagnosis, but without dysphagia,” she says.

Dr Attrill agrees.

“Our research highlights the need to recognise how dysphagia contributes to pressure on our health care systems,” she says.

“Hospital procedures that facilitate early identification, timely and evidence-based management of oropharyngeal dysphagia across any clinical population are likely to reduce negative health outcomes and healthcare costs that result from dysphagia.”

Dr Julie Cichero from the University of Queensland, who is also Co-Chair International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative, says the results of the research are “not surprising” and has welcomed further research into the area.

“Swallowing is as basic a human need as breathing, and yet we tend to take it for granted,” she says.

“Because we take it for granted we give it little though until something goes wrong.

“The prevalence of dysphagia is about eight percent of the general population throughout the lifespan but peaks in the very young and the very old with between 40-60 percent of individuals in aged care having dysphagia.

“It is not surprising that patients with dysphagia have longer hospital stays - it has been well documented for years in the research literature, but is not well known in the popular press - its is also not surprising that patients with dysphagia cost the health care system more.

“We are very happy to see research being done in this area and would definitely like to see more.

“More research will see an improvement in quality of life for people with swallowing difficulties and also a reduction in burden on the health system.”

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