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Drug Infusion Systems: Technologies, Performance, and Pitfalls

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This review aims to broadly describe drug infusion technologies and raise subtle but important issues arising from infusion therapy that can potentially lead to patient instability and morbidity. Advantages and disadvantages of gravity-dependent drug infusion are described and compared with electromechanical approaches for precise control of medication infusion, including large-volume peristaltic and syringe pumps. This review discusses how drugs and inert carriers interact within infusion systems and outlines several complexities and potential sources of drug error. Major topics are (1) the importance of the infusion system dead volume; (2) the quantities of coadministered fluid and the concept of microinfusion; and (3) future directions for drug infusion.

The infusion system dead volume resides between the point where drug and inert carrier streams meet and the patient’s blood. The dead volume is an often forgotten reservoir of drugs, especially when infusion flows slow or stop. Even with medications and carriers flowing, some mass of drug always resides within the dead volume. This reservoir of drug can be accidentally delivered into patients. When dose rate is changed, there can be a significant lag between intended and actual drug delivery. When a drug infusion is discontinued, drug delivery continues until the dead volume is fully cleared of residual drug by the carrier. When multiple drug infusions flow together, a change in any drug flow rate transiently affects the rate of delivery of all the others. For all of these reasons, the use of drug infusion systems with smaller dead volumes may be advantageous.

For critically ill patients requiring multiple infusions, the obligate amount of administered fluid can contribute to volume overload. Recognition of the risk of overload has given rise to microinfusion strategies wherein drug solutions are highly concentrated and infused at low rates. However, potential risks associated with the dead volume may be magnified with microinfusion. All of these potential sources for adverse events relating to the infusion system dead volume illustrate the need for continuing education of clinical personnel in the complexities of drug delivery by infusion.

This review concludes with an outline of future technologies for managing drug delivery by continuous infusion. Automated systems based on physiologic signals and smart systems based on physical principles and an understanding of dead volume may mitigate against adverse patient events and clinical errors in the complex process of drug delivery by infusion.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2017

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