A new study suggests simple communication tools can help many patients on ventilators.

A recent research project found that 53.9 percent of 2,671 mechanically ventilated patients screened had some basic level of communication.

Researchers say assistive communication tools – even as simple as a notepad and pen - would allow a patient to communicate requests and questions.

“Our findings challenge the commonly held assumption of many clinicians and researchers that these patients are unable to communicate or participate in their care,” said Mary Beth Happ, co-author of the study and distinguished professor of nursing at The Ohio State University.

“Establishing lines of communication is the first step in a patient being able to make his or her needs known and have accurate symptom assessment and management, and contributes to an overall better patient experience.

“We know from interviews with patients who remember their critical care experience that the inability to communicate is anxiety producing and, in some cases, terrifying,” she said.

The study found that more than half of the ventilated patients were alert and responsive to verbal communication from clinicians for at least one 12-hour shift, while receiving mechanical ventilation for two or more days.

“We need to change the culture of care teams in the ICU to better address communication support needs,” she said.

“We often don't have the necessary tools at the bedside, and it does require a certain skill level on the part of the clinician to be able to assist patients without both parties becoming very frustrated.”

The authors note that as critical care clinical practice moves toward less sedation, which promotes wakefulness and early mobilization during mechanical ventilation, the proportion of awake and potentially communicative patients is likely to increase - meaning an increased need for communication support.