Dr E Hill,
Pulse oximetry is a useful method of monitoring patients in many circumstances, and in the face of limited resources, the pulse oximeter may represent a wise choice of monitor, as with training it allows for the assessment of several different patient parameters.
Pulse oximeters are now a standard part of perioperative monitoring which give the operator a non-invasive indication of the patient's cardio-respiratory status. Having been successfully used in intensive care, the recovery room and during anaesthesia, they have been introduced in other areas of medicine such as general wards apparently without staff undergoing adequate training in their use(1). The technique of pulse oximetry does have pitfalls and limitations and it is possible that patient safety may be compromised with untrained staff. This article is therefore intended for the 'occasional' user of pulse oximetry.
Pulse oximeters measure the arterial oxygen saturation of haemoglobin. The technology involved is complicated but there are two basic physical principles. First, the absorption of light at two different wavelengths by haemoglobin differs depending on the degree of oxygenation of haemoglobin. Second, the light signal following transmission through the tissues has a pulsatile component, resulting from the changing volume of arterial blood with each pulse beat. This can be distinguished by the microprocessor from the non-pulsatile component resulting from venous, capillary and tissue light absorption.
The function of a pulse oximeter is affected by many variables, including: ambient light; shivering; abnormal haemoglobins; pulse rate and rhythm; vasoconstriction and cardiac function. A pulse oximeter gives no indication of a patient's ventilation, only of their oxygenation, and thus can give a false sense of security if supplemental oxygen is being given. In addition, there may be a delay between the occurrence of a potentially hypoxic event such as respiratory obstruction and a pulse oximeter detecting low oxygen saturation. However, oximetry is a useful non-invasive monitor of a patient's cardio-respiratory system, which has undoubtedly improved patient safety in many circumstances.
What does a pulse oximeter measure?
A pulse oximeter gives no information on any of these other variables:
Practical tips to the successful use of pulse oximetry:
Uses of pulse oximetry