Routine post anaesthetic observation

  • Introduction 

    Routine post anaesthetic observations are a requirement for patient assessment and the recognition of clinical deterioration in post-operative patients; acknowledging that children are at a high risk of complications post anaesthesia, surgery and procedures.  
    There is disparity in the literature as to what constitutes ‘standard’ routine post anaesthesia observations, so in line with the Observation and Continuous Monitoring Guideline, this guideline designates clinical observations for the immediate post-operative period and assists in the recognition of clinical deterioration through use of the Victorian Children’s Observation and Response (ViCTOR) graph  containing unshaded zones in which normal observations are expected and shaded zones above and below the normal limits.  


    This guideline applies to all patients after a general anaesthetic for whom the ‘ Post-Operative Discharge Criteria Following General Anaesthesia for Minor Surgical Procedures’ does not apply. 

    This guideline provides guidance for: 

    • Measurement of clinical observations in the post-operative period 
    • Role of continuous cardio-respiratory monitoring and pulse oximetry monitoring  
    • Use of the inpatient ViCTOR  graphs 
    • Links to the process for escalation of care in response to abnormal physiological observations  

    Note that this is a guideline only and does not replace the need for clinical judgment on an individual basis. 

    Definition of terms 

    • GA- General Anaesthesic 
    • PACU- Post Anaesthetic Care Unit 


    Initial assessment – PACU 

    When admitting a patient to PACU, patient identification and handover should occur utilising the Recovery arrival handover tool in EMR.  

    Post-operative orders must be communicated both verbally and documented. It is the surgeon or proceduralist’s responsibility to ensure all post-operative orders for the patient are added to their EMR. If orders are not present, the PACU nurse will escalate to the treating team and handover to the nurse assuming responsibility for the care of the patient. Post-operative orders are additional to the operation report.  

    Clinical handover in PACU, should highlight any issues throughout the intra-operative period, acknowledge the process for escalation of care, should this be required and allow for clarification of any instructions before accepting care of the patient.  

    Once care is accepted in the PACU the initial assessment should include: 

    • Physical Assessment  

    • Airway, Breathing, Circulation & Disability Assessment (link to Nursing Assessment Guideline)
    • Baseline Observations including, RR, Respiratory effort, SpO2, HR, BP and Temperature   
    • Oxygen requirements   
    • IV infusions   
    • Analgesia
    • Urine Output 
    • Reportable Blood Loss   
    • Assessment of Wound Sites / Dressings   
    • Presence of drains and patency of same   
    • NGT In situ 

    Observations continue at least 15 minutely, or more frequently as clinically indicated 

    • HR, RR, SpO2, Temperature and BP

    • Sedation Score (UMSS)
    • Pain Score 
    • Nausea Score
    • Wound Site/ Dressings 

    Continuous oximetry monitoring should be initiated for all patients admitted to PACU.  

    Consider the need for cardiorespiratory monitoring, including  all patients under 6 months of age, patients with a cardiac history and as clinically indicated for all other patients.   

    Patients are ready to transfer to the ward once they meet the PACU ‘Discharge Criteria’ (see below) and ‘Ready for Discharge’ both of which are timestamped on EMR.  

    PACU ‘Discharge Criteria’ 

    • Clinical Observations within age-appropriate limits. 

    • Observations which fall within shaded areas of clinical observation chart should be managed following the Medical Emergency Response Procedure, please note appendix 4 specifically refers to transfer of patients from PACU to ward. 

    • Core temperature ≥ 36 degrees C or ≥36.6 degrees C for neonates.

    • If the temperature is <36 C and >35.5 degrees C, the patient is rousable and all other observations are within normal range, patient can be transferred to the ward.
    • Sedation score 2 or less (UMSS). 
    • No active vomiting.
    • Pain Managed.
    • Surgical bleeding from wounds/drains are assessed, within expected parameters and escalated if required. 
    • Clinical indicators completed. 

    If there is a delay in transfer of patient related to inability of inpatient unit to accept care, then observations in the PACU will continue to be 15 minutely as per ACORN standards. 

    If there is a delay in transfer PACU nurses will handover the time the patient met the PACU ‘Discharge Criteria’. 

    Management of Day of Surgery patients  

    Please refer to ‘ Post-Operative Discharge Criteria Following General Anaesthesia for Minor Surgical Procedures’ for day of surgery patients, this includes day of surgery patients who are admitted to an inpatient ward i.e. afterhours.  

    Management of Patients requiring an Inpatient Stay 

    When transferring care from PACU to the ward, patient identification and handover should occur utilising the Handover Flowsheet. Initial patient assessment should include: 

    • Physical Assessment of patient including Airway, Breathing, Circulation & Disability (Link to Nursing Assessment
    • Clinical Handover  
    • Actual Complications / Potential Complications Identified  
    • Documentation that Handover has been given/received between PACU Nurse and Ward Nurse accepting care. 
    • Documentation of altered MET Criteria if required (please see the Medical Emergency Response Procedure
    • The time frame for routine post anaesthetic observations should commence once the PACU nurse has deemed the patient ‘Ready for Discharge’.   
      • This documentation can be located in the EMR under the ‘Chart Review’ Activity tab – ‘Anaesthetics and Perfusion’ – Click to open the procedure report and scroll down to ‘Recovery’ ‘Case Tracking Events’. The ward nurse should confirm the time when the patient was deemed ‘Ready for Discharge’ during handover.  

    Note: if there is a delay in transferring a patient to the ward due to bed availability, the time the patient met the PACU ‘Discharge Criteria’ and ‘Ready for Discharge’ should be noted, so as the routine post anaesthetic observation period need not be reset. 

    Frequency of routine post anaesthetic observations: 

    • Immediately on transfer from PACU to ward 

    • Continue ½ hourly for 4 hours if the patient had an Endo Tracheal Tube placed 

    • Continue ½ hourly for 2 hours if the patient had a Laryngeal Mask placed

    • RPAO can be placed as an order in EMR 

    Routine post anaesthetic observations should include: 

    • HR, RR, SpO2, BP and Temperature 

    • Neurological Assessment (AVPU, Michigan sedation score or formal GCS as indicated) 

    • Pain Score 

    • Assessment of Wound Sites / Dressings   
    • Presence of drains and patency of same

    • Other complications/assessment findings as patient condition dictates (refer to Nursing Assessment guideline

    Consider the need for continuous pulse oximetry and/or cardio-respiratory monitoring as indicated by patient’s condition.  
    All Patients with altered conscious, respiratory and/or cardiovascular status should receive continuous pulse oximetry and/or cardio-respiratory monitoring throughout the routine post anaesthetic period outlined above and as indicated by patient condition. 
    Refer to the Observation and Continuous Monitoring guideline for more information. 
    Whilst all postoperative orders need to include both post anaesthetic and post-surgical orders, some patient groups may need modified post-operative orders +/- modification of MET criteria, these may include: 

    • Patient factors: examples include increased risk of hypothermia including children with Cerebral Palsy or family history of Malignant Hyperthermia 

    • Surgical factors: examples include major surgery where there has been significant blood loss 

    For further information regarding modification on the MET criteria please see the Medical Emergency Response Procedure

    Ongoing observation 

    At the completion of the RPAO’s, the type and frequency of clinical observations must reflect the clinical status, therapies and interventions being delivered to the child and be consistent with requirements of other individual guidelines and procedures. 

    As per the Observation and Continuous Monitoring guideline, observations should be performed at least once per hour if the patient: 

    • Has previous observations within the shaded orange or red zone (unless modified)  

    • Was transferred from PICU/NICU (as clinically indicated)  

    • Is receiving PCA, Epidural, or Opioid infusion

    • Is receiving an Insulin infusion
    • Has ICP monitoring
    • Is receiving oxygen therapy 

    Note, other children may require hourly observations and continuous monitoring as clinically indicated. Observation frequency is an order.   

    • The registered nurse responsible for the child's care will determine the type and frequency of observations based on the results of previous observations and the child's clinical condition, in consultation with others involved in the child's care 

    • Clinical observations must be recorded before transfer from one area to another, for example from ED to ward, PICU to ward or PACU to ward 
    • If a child's observations are transgressing MET criteria (i.e., in the shaded zones) this must be addressed prior to transfer. Please see the Medical Emergency Response Procedure. 

    Escalation of care 

    If you are concerned about the child for whom you are caring, please refer to the Medical Emergency Response Procedure.

    If immediate review is required in a deteriorating child, call a MET (dial 22 22 and state building, level, ward and room number). 

    Special Considerations  

    • If the patient has been administered Flumazenil or Naloxone in either theatre or recovery, this increases the risk of an adverse complication/event such as respiratory depression/compromise and increased sedation/or altered conscious state.  

    • Once patient is discharged to the ward post flumazenil/ Naloxone administration, 15 minutely observations continue for 1 hour and normal observations thereafter. See Naloxone Flumazenil reversal flowchart for more information  


    Companion documents 

    Please remember to  read the disclaimer

    The development of this nursing guideline was coordinated by Amy Carle, Nursing Guideline Fellow, Nursing Research, and Elise Armour, CNS, Day Surgery, and approved by the Nursing Clinical Effectiveness Committee. Updated March 2024.  

    Evidence Table 


    Source of Evidence

    Key findings and considerations
    ACORN Standards for Peri-Operative Nursing; Australian College of Operating Room Nurses (ACORN), 2011  National Standards 
    • Identifies paediatric patients as unique in their management requirements + are more vulnerable + a greater safety risk than adults.  
    • States that effective management of post-operative nausea + vomiting post anaesthetic shall be provided.  
    • Details information that should be included in handover to receiving unit staff.  

      Burchill, C., Anderson, B., & O’Connor, P. C. (2015). Exploration of nurse practices and attitudes related to postoperative vital signs. Medsurg Nursing, 24(4), 249-255. 
      Qualitative study
      • Observations need to be tailored to individual and performed more frequent if necessary.  
      Implementation Guide for Organisational Introduction + Use of the Post Operative Orders Format; Victorian Surgical Consultative Council (VSCC), 2009 
      Reports of expert committee 
      • Post-Operative Orders need to include both past anaesthetic + post-surgical orders.
      • Six benefits of a standardize post-operative orders format identified.
      • Project Plan detailed for implementation (set up, preparation, implementation, evaluation).  
        Zeitz, K., & McCutcheon, H. (2002). Policies that drive the nursing postoperative observations; International Journal of Nursing Studies, 39(8), 831-839 
        Qualitative study 
        • Most common pattern of postoperative vital sign collection is hourly for 4 hours then 4 hourly in 27% of cases (procedure dependent).
        • Neurovascular, wound + drain checks most frequent observations collected in addition to vital signs. 
          Zeitz, K. (2003). Nursing observations during the first 24 hours after a surgical procedure: what do we do? Journal of Clinical Nursing, 14, 334-343  Descriptive study 
          • Confirmed that the literature provides little guidance as to the best practice of postoperative surveillance 
          • Generally reflected a traditional pattern of hourly for the first 4 hours, reducing to four hourly across the 12 – 24 hour period 
          • After the initial intensive monitoring for individual patients, vital sounds are collected in ‘rounds’, four hourly which relates to hospital culture rather than evidence based practice 
          • A clear cognisance of practice needs to be identified 
            Zeitz, K. (2006). Observations and Vital Signs: ritual or vital for the monitoring of postoperative patients? Applied Nursing Research, 19, 204-211   Observational audit and retrospective audit 
            • Vital signs are collected based on tradition and are collected routinely.  
            • Not determined by clinician or individual patient. 
            • There may not be a relationship between vital signs collection and the occurrence or detection of complications.