The Trauma Activation Pat-Down?

Yes, this is another one of my pet peeves. During a trauma activation, we all strive to adhere to the Advanced Trauma Life Support protocols. Primary survey, secondary survey, etc. Usually, the primary survey is done well.

But then we get to the secondary survey, and things get sloppy.

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The secondary survey is supposed to be a quick yet thorough physical exam, both front and back. But all too often it’s quick, and not so thorough. There is the usual laying on of the hands, but barely. Abdominal palpation is usually done well. But little effort is put into checking stability of the pelvis. The extremities are gently patted down with the hope of finding fractures. Joints are slightly flexed, but not stressed at all.

Is it just a slow degradation of physical exam skills? Is it increasing (and misguided) faith in the utility of the CT scanner? I don’t really know. But it’s real!

Bottom line: Watch yourself and your team as they perform the secondary survey! Your goal is to find all the injuries you can before you go to imaging. This means deep palpation, twisting and trying to bend extremities looking for fractures, stressing joints looking for laxity. And doing a good neuro exam! Don’t let your physical exam skills atrophy! Your patients will thank you.

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