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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Long lasting leg or foot ulcers, those that take more than six weeks to heal, affect about 15 in every 10,000 people. They are expensive to treat and often affect people with other health problems too. This estimate was higher than expected. Based on the previous state of knowledge it was thought that 5 in every 10,000 people, at any one time, had open leg ulcers. The researchers thought these estimates were imprecise and wanted to improve them.

A five-year programme on complex wounds has highlighted a lack of good quality patient centred research on best management despite looking carefully for existing trials on the topic. Complex wounds, caused by conditions such as leg and foot ulcers, are often left open to heal by themselves. Healing can take time and in some cases the wound may never heal completely. This can have a major impact upon quality of life.

This research, undertaken as part of the NIHR-funded programme, included eleven new and updated reviews of the existing literature, a survey and interviews with people with complex wounds, their carers and healthcare professionals.

It identified a top 12 list of priorities for future research and practice needs to focus on the outcomes that matter to people with complex wounds. Social consequences are of particular concern, and when healing is unrealistic or liable to take time, people need greater support managing what may become a long term condition.

Why was this study needed?

This was the first high quality study to look for the prevalence of all kinds of complex wounds. Previous studies of prevalence for all types of ulcers had estimated a prevalence of 0.05% (5 per 10,000 people). Complex wounds (sometimes known as chronic wounds) involve superficial, partial or full-thickness skin loss being treated by secondary intention. This means the wound is left open to heal as opposed to being closed by stitches or similar. Complex wounds often stem from conditions such as pressure ulcers and diabetic foot ulcers and tend to be treated by nurses in the community. The cost of delivering care to people with complex wounds is unclear, but will be high. Community prescribing costs alone for wound dressings were £184M in 2012.

No routine data is collected in the UK about complex wound care so we know little about the number of people affected, what treatment they receive, their outcomes and the associated costs. There is also a lack of information about the experience and preferences of people with complex wounds and their carers.

Existing research tends to be of poor quality. The overall aim of this study was to try and fill the gaps in the evidence and to update or undertake new systematic reviews in order to improve the care and outcomes for people with, or at risk of, complex wounds.

What did this study do?

The programme was split into three work streams. The first focused on the number, nature and care of complex wounds. A systematic review of existing prevalence studies was carried out, followed by a survey completed by 1103 people managing care for complex wounds across Leeds.

Work stream two explored the outcomes prioritised by people affected by complex wounds through semi-structured interviews in Leeds with 33 patients, eight carers and 12 healthcare professionals. A review of 167 randomised controlled trials of complex wound outcomes, was used to develop research priorities.

Work stream three identified areas of high decision uncertainty through consultation with NHS staff in Leeds and then conducted or updated Cochrane reviews in several complex wound topic areas.

Most underlying studies on which these reviews were based were at unclear risk of bias and they recruited small numbers of participants with short durations of follow-up, meaning that any estimate of effect is uncertain.

What did it find?

  • The prevalence of complex wounds in Leeds was estimated as 1.47 per 1000 population (95% confidence interval 1.38 to 1.56 per 1000 population).
  • A primary dressing was reported in 1326 of 1416 wounds (93.6%). The most frequently reported primary dressing were non- and low-adherence wound contact dressings (26.3%).
  • Most patients (29 out of 33) said the outcome they most wanted from treatment is healing. When asked what bothered them most about the wound, six people said pain, five the social embarrassment of the smell and three the social embarrassment of leakage. A further two said the boredom due to confinement to the bed/house, two sited itching, two the threat of infection and one the strangeness of not having pain.
  • Eleven Cochrane reviews were undertaken or updated: five in diabetic foot ulcers, five in venous leg ulcers and one in surgical wounds. The number of included RCTs ranged from 5 to 48. These identified several potentially effective wound treatments. Matrix hydrocolloid dressing had the highest probability (70%) of being the best dressing for diabetic foot ulcers, whereas a hyaluronan fleece dressing had the highest probability (35%) of being the best for venous ulcers.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

There is UK guidance on the prevention and management of complex wounds. Complex wounds from diabetes are covered by NICE 2016 guidelines on the prevention and management of diabetic foot problems, and other guidelines cover the prevention and management of pressure ulcers (2014) and SIGN management of chronic venous leg ulcers (2010). These give some suggestions of what to do and what not to try but in general do not focus on comparing dressings against each other. They do not cover the psychological and social impact of living with this long-term condition.

What are the implications?

More good quality research needs to be conducted to lessen treatment uncertainties and provide specific guidance. As it stands, wound care services are often centred on the physical rather than psychological or social impacts of having a complex wound.

As such a shift needs to occur in terms of how complex wounds are viewed. As opposed to just focusing on healing, more emphasis needs to be placed upon the possibility of having to live with a long term condition. This would help support not only people with complex wounds but also their carers and healthcare professionals.


Citation and Funding

Cullum N, Buckley H, Dumville J, et al. Wounds research for patient benefit: a 5-year programme of research. Programme Grants Appl Res. 2016;4(13).

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Programme Grants for Applied Research (project number RP-PG-0407-10428).



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