Given the growing number of elderly within most western countries, the increasing attention that has been paid to this subpopulation is not surprising. Combined with the relatively high use of care associated with elderly patients, this development makes the elderly an increasingly important subpopulation for healthcare organisations. Studies regarding patient safety have shown that elderly hospitalised patients are at greater risk for preventable adverse events than younger patients [1
], indicating that this growing group of patients will bring specific requirements and risks to hospitals.
In the Netherlands, the publication of a report regarding adverse events in Dutch hospitals [2
] led to the start of a national patient safety programme in 2008 [4
]. The programme consists of several themes or projects, one of which is the Frail Elderly Project. This project is an evidence-based improvement project aimed at improving care for hospitalised elderly (aged 70 and over). Four health problems are addressed, namely, delirium, falls, malnutrition, and physical impairment. In the project, participating hospitals are advised to screen all elderly patients directly after admission for frailty, defined as the risk of developing or the presence of these four health problems (Additional file 1
]. Hospitals are provided with advice regarding the prevention and treatment of these problems as well. The overall aim of the Frail Elderly Project is to reduce preventable functional decline in elderly patients caused by hospital stay by improving the quality of care. The national programme provides participating hospitals with advice concerning the project through conferences, the programme website, and a guide. The programme does not provide implementation support in the participating hospitals themselves; implementation of the projects lies solely with the hospitals. In our study, we focus on the Frail Elderly Project, with specific attention to delirium.
Delirium occurs frequently in hospitalised patients, especially in the elderly: about 25% of hospitalised patients aged 65 and over experience a delirium during their hospital stay [9
]. Depending on the population that has been studied and the methods that have been used, the delirium rate can increase to 62% (surgical patients) or even 87% (intensive care) [10
]. Delirium, sometimes referred to as acute confusional state, is a temporary neuropsychiatric disorder with physiological causes. A delirious patient will experience disturbance of consciousness and a change in cognition or disturbance of perception [10
]. The disorder is noted for its acute onset and fluctuating state [9
], which are key features that separate delirium from dementia. However, given the fluctuating state of delirium and the similarities in symptoms with dementia, depression, and psychosis, delirium is sometimes hard to diagnose [9
], which creates a problem for providing adequate delirium care. Studies have indicated that between 32% and 67% of delirium cases were missed during hospital stay [12
]. Under-detection and subsequent inadequate care present a problem because delirium in elderly patients is associated with increased length of hospital stay, functional decline, admission to long-term care, and higher mortality [13
Nevertheless, several studies have shown that a significant percentage of delirium cases are preventable, and different strategies have reduced by approximately one-third the incidence of delirious patients [15
]. The Frail Elderly Project aims to decrease the incidence of delirium in hospitalised elderly patients and minimise the adverse effects associated with delirium, such as functional decline. As mentioned earlier, the implementation of the Frail Elderly Project is a task of the hospitals themselves; no onsite support or training is provided by the national programme. Because several studies have shown that both physicians and nurses have a lack of knowledge concerning delirium and its recognition [9
], an educational tool would appear to be a valuable supplement to the delirium part of the Frail Elderly Project. That an educational intervention can significantly improve delirium recognition and care has been shown by a previous study, which resulted in a strong decline in delirium point prevalence -- 9.8% in the intervention group versus 19.5% in the control group [21
Because knowledge about delirium is relevant for virtually all nurses working within the hospital, an educational approach that can improve knowledge and skills for large groups of people is needed. E-learning is one method available for efficiently educating a large number of people. A review by Cook et al.
] has shown that the use of e-learning or 'internet-based education' compared with no intervention is associated with a positive effect on knowledge, skills, and behaviour of healthcare professionals, as well as on patient outcomes. Less clear-cut results have been found for computer-assisted learning aimed at nurses, suggesting more research is needed in this field [23
]. Computer-assisted learning refers to all methods of using computerised technology to facilitate education, including e-learning. Whether e-learning can provide a valuable tool for improving delirium care specifically has yet to be determined, though researchers have suggested e-learning as an important option for improving delirium education [24
The aim of the study is to assess the effects a complementary e-learning course has on the implementation of the delirium part of the Frail Elderly Project, and thus to see whether the use of e-learning improves the provision of delirium care by nurses. The hypothesis underlying this study is that use of e-learning will increase nurses' knowledge regarding delirium and their willingness to change their behaviour regarding at-risk patients. It is hypothesised that these effects will in turn lead to changes in the care provided: screening of elderly patients for risks, observing at-risk patients for delirium, and taking preventative or curative measures. This protocol describes the methodology used in this study and provides details of the stepped wedge cluster randomised controlled trial design [25