Validation of a Dysphagia Screening Tool in Acute Stroke Patients

Jeff Edmiaston, MS, CCC-SLP; Lisa Tabor Connor, PhD; Lynda Loehr, MA, CCCSLP; Abdullah Nassief, MD


Am J Crit Care. 2010;19(4):357-364. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background Although many dysphagia screening tools exist, none has high sensitivity and reliability or can be administered quickly with minimal training.
Objective To design and validate a swallowing screening tool to be used by health care professionals who are not speech language pathologists to identify dysphagia and aspiration risk in acute stroke patients.
Methods In a prospective study of 300 patients admitted to the stroke service at an urban tertiary care hospital, interrater and test-retest reliabilities of a new tool (the Acute Stroke Dysphagia Screen) were established. The tool was administered by nursing staff when patients were admitted to the stroke unit. A speech language pathologist blinded to the results with the new tool administered the Mann Assessment of Swallowing Ability, a clinical bedside evaluation, with dysphagia operationally defined by a score less than 178.
Results The mean time from admission to screening with the new tool was 8 hours. The mean time between administration of the new tool and the clinical bedside evaluation was 32 hours. For the new tool, interrater reliability was 93.6% and test-retest reliability was 92.5%. The new tool had a sensitivity of 91% and a specificity of 74% for detecting dysphagia and a sensitivity of 95% and a specificity of 68% for detecting aspiration risk.
Conclusions The Acute Stroke Dysphagia Screen is an easily administered and reliable tool that has sufficient sensitivity to detect both dysphagia and aspiration risk in acute stroke patients.


One of the most common and earliest problems to emerge after a stroke is difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). Depending on the method of assessment and how dysphagia is defined, the prevalence of dysphagia in stroke patients ranges from 30%[1] to 67%.2 Dysphagia may result in aspiration, which occurs in approximately 20% to 25% of stroke patients.[3–5] Swallowing abnormality is associated with higher mortality4 and is strongly correlated with pneumonia.[3,6] Pneumonia is approximately 7 times more likely to develop in patients who aspirate after stroke than in patients who do not.[7] In addition to mortality and chest infection, a significant relationship exists between dysphagia and malnutrition.[8]

The Joint Commission has recognized the impact that dysphagia has on stroke patients. As part of its standardized stroke measure set for primary stroke centers, the Joint Commission requires that all patients admitted with a stroke diagnosis be screened before they can resume an oral diet.[9] Perry[10] identified 6 screening tools that are available: the "Any Two," the Burke Dysphagia Screening Test, the Timed Test, the 3-oz water swallow test, the Bedside Swallowing Assessment, and the Standardized Swallowing Assessment. The Gugging Swallowing Screen, published in 2007, is the most recent addition to the swallowing screening tools that are available.[11] Although many tools are available, none of them meets essential screening criteria: high sensitivity, high reliability, quick administration, and minimal training for reliable administration.

In the "Any Two" screening study,[12] consecutive patients were recruited within 5 days of acute hospital admission for stroke. Patients who were agitated, had clouding of consciousness, or had a history of oropharyngeal dysphagia, oropharyngeal structural damage, or other neurological disease that could produce dysphagia were excluded. All patients were examined with computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging to confirm the stroke. Concurrent validity of the Any Two screening was established with a videofluoroscopic evaluation of swallowing. Six clinical features were identified in that study: dysphonia; dysarthria; abnormal, volitional cough; abnormal gag reflex; cough after swallow; and voice change after swallowing. The presence of any 2 of those features was considered to indicate dysphagia. Table 1 shows the sensitivity and specificity of the Any Two screening; however, its reliability was not reported Table 2.

In the study of the Burke Dysphagia Screening Test,[13] patients admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation unit were recruited. All were evaluated at a mean of approximately 5 weeks (SD, 3 weeks) from the time of stroke for the following reasons: bilateral hemispheric stroke, brainstem stroke, pneumonia during the acute stroke phase, coughing associated with feeding or during a 3-oz water swallow test, persistent failure to consume half of meals, prolonged time required for feeding, and non oral feeding program in progress. Data on the first 3 items were obtained via chart review and the rest were obtained by observing a patient during a meal. No tool for used for concurrent validity, and participants "failed" the screening if pneumonia or recurrent upper airway obstruction developed. Neither sensitivity nor specificity was reported for either aspiration or dysphagia (Table 1). The authors claim that this is not a dysphagia screening but rather a screening for dysphagia-related medical complications.

In the Timed Test study,[14] patients admitted with suspected stroke were recruited; evaluation occurred within 72 hours of acute hospital admission. The swallowing screening consisted of an initial presentation of a single teaspoon of water that was followed by the timed intake of 100 to 150 mL of water. Abnormality was defined as either swallowing capacity outside the 95% prediction interval for age and sex or coughing during the test or wet/hoarse voice after the test. The validity of this screening was evaluated by comparing the results with symptoms, by a referral to a speech language pathologist, and by the need for intervention by a speech language pathologist. Reliability was not reported, but sensitivity and specificity are noted in Table 1.

In the 3-oz water swallow test study,[15] forty-four sequential patients from a stroke rehabilitation unit were recruited. Inclusion criteria were 1 or more of the following features: bilateral hemispheric stroke, brainstem stroke, pneumonia during the acute stroke phase, coughing associated with feeding, failure to consume half of meals, prolonged time required for feeding, and nonoral feeding program in progress. Any patient who had 1 or more of these features was referred for a 3-oz water swallow test. The patient swallowed 3 oz of water uninterrupted, and abnormality was defined by coughing during swallowing or 1 minute after completion. The presence of a wet/hoarse voice quality after swallowing also was scored as abnormal. Concurrent validity was established by means of videofluoroscopic evaluation of swallowing. The authors did not report reliability, but sensitivity and specificity were reported (Table 1).

In the Bedside Swallowing Assessment study,[16] consecutive patients were recruited 24 hours after admission with a confirmed diagnosis of stroke. Patients were excluded if they were outside the 24-hour window, had severe illness, or if consent was refused or could not be obtained. The swallowing ability of the participants was assessed by a physician daily for the first 4 days and then at day 7, at day 28, and at 6 months. A speech language pathologist also assessed the participants up to 3 times during the first week and then again at day 28 and at 6 months. The clinical bedside assessment by the physician included assessment of consciousness, head and trunk control, breathing pattern, lip closure, palatal movement, laryngeal function, voluntary cough, and gag. The physician then presented the patient with 5 mL of water 3 times and then 60 mL of water.

The assessment by the speech language pathologist included similar criteria to those in the physician's assessment but did so in a much more detailed manner (eg, considered lip closure at rest, during eating/drinking, and in speech rather than simply a global statement of lip closure normal/abnormal). Patients were seen as having a compromised swallow (ie, they failed the screening) if they were considered to be at risk of aspirating after the clinical bedside evaluation. The authors did not present the criteria for what defined aspiration risk. Concurrent validity was established with the modified barium swallow. Reliability was not reported, but sensitivity and specificity for aspiration are noted in Table 1.

In the Standardized Swallowing Assessment study,[17] patients admitted with the clinical diagnosis of stroke were recruited. The screening consisted of 3 sections. The first section ensured that the patient was physically able to participate in the screening and included level of alertness/responsiveness and the ability of the patient to be positioned upright with some degree of head control. The second section evaluated voluntary cough, salivary management, the ability to lick the top and bottom lip, respiratory function, and vocal quality. If the patient showed abnormalities in any of these criteria, the screening was considered "failed" and a referral was made to a speech language pathologist. If all items on sections 1 and 2 were passed, section 3 involved 3 trials of water from a teaspoon. If no abnormality was noted, then a half glass of water was presented. If no dysfunction was noted, then an appropriate meal was ordered and the patient was supervised during the meal.

Abnormality was defined as coughing, choking, or breathlessness while swallowing, or a wet/gurgly voice after swallowing. The authors of that study used a summary judgment based on clinical indicators found in the patient's medical record as to the presence or absence of dysphagia. This judgment was used as the "gold standard" for identification of dysphagia and was what established concurrent validity for this screening. Reliability, sensitivity, and specificity for this screening are all reported in Table 1.

In the Gugging Swallowing Screen,[11] patients admitted to a stroke unit with a first-ever stroke and suspected dysphagia between Monday and Thursday were recruited. Exclusion criteria included multiple infarcts seen on computed tomography scans or magnetic resonance images, known dysphagia of another cause, or somnolence/coma. The screening consists of 2 subtests: 1 an indirect assessment and 1 a direct asessment of swallowing function. The first subtest was the indirect measure, which included assessment of alertness, voluntary cough, and salivary management. The second subtest was the direct swallowing assessment, which included trials with semisolids, liquids, and solids. Observation of the presence of, absence of, or delay in swallowing response was made. In addition, the presence of coughing before, during, or up to 3 minutes after swallowing was noted, as well as voice changes immediately after swallowing. The presence or absence of drooling was noted as well. Reliability, sensitivity, and specificity were all established by the authors (Table 1). Concurrent validity was established with fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing.

Only 2 of the 7 screening tools studied had reliability reported, and none had test-retest reliability reported. Three of 7 screening tools did not use a reference-standard evaluation method to establish concurrent validity. All of the screening tools except the Burke Dysphagia Screening Tool reported sensitivity to either dysphagia or aspiration, but none reported sensitivity to both. The 3-oz water test and the Bedside Swallowing Assessment have reported sensitivities less than 80% for aspiration. The Any Two screening has a reported sensitivity of 92% for at least moderate dysphagia. For measures that reported it, specificity ranged from 50% to 90%, an acceptable range because these are screenings and the emphasis should be on high sensitivity, not high specificity.

Two of the screening tools excluded comatose patients, which was a significant limitation, because decreased level of consciousness frequently occurs in acute stroke patients, and any screening tool for dysphagia must be able to be used in this subset of patients. Several of the screening tools have high sensitivity to dysphagia or aspiration, concurrent validity, and interrater reliability, although none of the screenings included all of these items. These limitations in the current screening tools led our facility to develop the Acute-Stroke Dysphagia Screen (ASDS; see Figure).


Screening tool developed to detect difficulty swallowing in stroke patients. Reprinted with permission of Barnes Jewish Hospital, St Louis, Missouri.

Our goal was to create a simple dysphagia screening that could be used by nurses and other health care professionals to detect swallowing difficulty quickly and accurately in patients who have had a stroke. To achieve that goal, we established the following criteria to guide the development of the ASDS: sensitivity to dysphagia and aspiration, high interrater and test-retest reliability, concurrent validity established by using an objective swallowing assessment, quick administration, and minimal training for a nurse or other health care professional to become proficient in its administration. We then conducted a study to validate this measure against a well-established measure for clinical bedside evaluation and to establish its interrater reliability for nurses who were to administer and interpret the results of the instrument.