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Vital signs are important medical tools that measure the overall well-being of a patient. Vital signs charts allow medical professionals to record and follow the progress or decline of these measurements. Hospitals use a variety of methods to chart the signs, including computer software, graphs, and fill-in-the-blank forms. While medical facilities are usually free to choose with types of vital signs charts work best for their needs, it is important to stick with one type for the duration of a patient’s stay to avoid confusion or charting errors.
Medical personnel measure four different vital signs, or “signs of life,” when evaluating and treating patients. These include blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature. A baseline reading is established when the patient first enters the facility, and the measurements are repeated at timed intervals throughout his or her stay. Severely injured or critical patients may have their vital signs measured as often as every 15 minutes while stable patients may only have two to three measurements per day. Every reading is noted on an individual vital signs chart.
While each vital sign has an established level that is considered normal, every patient is different, and certain medical conditions can alter readings. To account for these differences, comprehensive vital signs charts should list pertinent medical information about the patient, including a history of heart disease, hypertension, or shortness of breath. Medications, recent surgeries, and other factors that can alter the readings should also be noted on the charts.
Along with the four basic signs, many medical facilities include a pain scale on their vital signs charts. Each patient has his or her own pain threshold, and exceeding that threshold can alter the vital signs. For example, a patient in a severe amount of pain may present with elevated blood pressure and a faster heart rate. Pain is typically measured on a scale of one to ten, but may also be measured with facial expressions representing different levels of pain. This type of pain scale is especially helpful with children.
The different types of vital signs charts offer various benefits and drawbacks. An electronic chart maintained on a computer network allows different areas of the facility access to patients' charts without touting around heavy binders, but the lack of hard copies can be devastating if the network becomes corrupted. A graph chart allows medical staff to visually track rises and falls in the vital signs, but one misplaced dot can alter the entire reading. Fill-in-the-blank charts make it easier for medical personnel to make sure they’ve carefully recorded every vital sign, but may make it easier to miss something important if a page is accidentally skipped. Whichever method medical facilities choose to use, exercising care when entering the information and guarding against common human error are essential to maintaining adequate vital signs charts.
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