Tag Archives: philosophy

Why People Don’t Change Their Minds Despite The Data

Has this happened to you?

Your (emergency physician / neurosurgeon / orthopaedic surgeon) colleague wants to (get rib detail xrays / administer steroids / wait a few days before doing a femur ORIF). You question it based on your interpretation of the literature. You even provide a stack of papers to them to prove your point. Do they buy it? Even in the presence of randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies with thousands of patients (good luck finding those)?

The answer is generally NO! Why not? It’s science. It’s objective data. WTF?

Sociologists and psychologists have shown that there is a concept that they call the Backfire Effect. Essentially, once you come to believe something, you do your best to protect it from harm. You become more skeptical of facts that refute your beliefs, and less skeptical of the items that support them. Having one’s beliefs challenged, even with objective and authoritative data, causes us to hold them even more deeply. There are plenty of examples of this in everyday life. The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The number of shooters in the JFK assassination. President Obama’s citizenship.

Bottom line: It’s human nature to try to pick apart a scientific article that challenges your biases, looking for every possible fault. It’s the Backfire Effect. Be aware of this built in flaw (protective mechanism?) in our psyche. And always ask yourself, “what if?” Look at the issue through the eyes of someone not familiar with the concepts. If someone challenges your beliefs, welcome it! Be skeptical of both them AND yourself. You might just learn something new!

But The Radiologist Made Me Do It!

The radiologist made me order that (unnecessary) test! I’ve heard this excuse many, many times. Do these phrases look familiar?

  1. … recommend clinical correlation
  2. … correlation with CT may be of value
  3. … recommend delayed CT imaging through the area
  4. … may represent thymus vs thoracic aortic injury (in a 2 year old who fell down stairs)
Some trauma professionals will read the radiology report and then immediately order more xrays. Others will critically look at the report, the patient’s clinical status and mechanism of injury, and then decide they are not necessary. I am firmly in the latter camp.
But why do some just follow the rad’s suggestions? I believe there are two major camps:
  • Those that are afraid of being sued if they don’t do everything suggested, because they’ve done everything and shouldn’t miss the diagnosis
  • Those that don’t completely understand what is known about trauma mechanisms and injury and think the radiologist does
Bottom line: The radiologist is your consultant. While they are good at reading images, they do not know the nuances of trauma. Plus, they didn’t get to see the patient so they don’t have the full context for their read. First, talk to the rad so they know what happened to the patient and what you are looking for. Then critically look at their read. If the mechanism doesn’t support the diagnosis, or they are requesting unusual or unneeded studies, don’t get them! Just document your rationale clearly in the record. This provides best patient care, and minimizes the potential complications (and radiation exposure) from unnecessary tests.
Related post:

Reference: Pitfalls of the vague radiology report. AJR 174(6):1511-1518, 2000.

Why Is So Much Published Research So Bad?

I read lots of trauma-related articles every week. And as I browse through them, I often find studies that leave me wondering how they ever got published. And this is not a new phenomenon. Look at any journal a year ago. Five years ago. Twenty years ago. And even older. The research landscape is littered with their carcasses.

And on a related note, sit down with any serious clinical question in your field you want to answer. Do a deep dive with one of the major search engines and try to get an answer. Or better yet, let the professionals from the Cochrane Library or other organization do it for you. Invariably, you will find hints and pieces of the answer you seek. But never the completely usable solution you desire. 

Why is it so hard? Even with tens of thousands of articles being published every year?

Because there is no overarching plan! Individuals are forced to produce research as a condition of their employment. Or to assure career advancement. Or to get into medical school, or a “good” residency. And in the US, Level I trauma centers are required to publish at least 20 papers every three years to maintain their status. So there is tremendous pressure across all disciplines to publish something.

Unfortunately, that something is usually work that is easily conceived and quickly executed. A registry review, or some other type of retrospective study. They are easy to get approval for, take little time to complete and analyze, and have the potential to get published quickly.

But what this “publish or perish” mentality promotes is a random jumble of answers that we didn’t really need and can’t learn a thing from. There is no planning. There is no consideration of what questions we really need to answer. Just a random bunch of thoughts that are easy to get published but never get cited by anyone else.

Bottom line: How do we fix this? Not easily. Give every work a “quality score.” Instead of focusing on the quantity of publications, the “authorities” (tenure committees and the journal editors themselves) need to focus in on their quality. Extra credit should be given to multicenter trial involvement, prospective studies, and other higher quality projects. These will increase the quality score. The actual number of publications should not matter as much as how much high quality work is in progress. Judge the individual or center on their total quality score, not the absolute number of papers they produce. Sure, the sheer number of studies published will decline, but the quality will increase exponentially!

Why Is NPO The Default Diet For Trauma Patients?

I’ve watched it happen for years. A trauma patient is admitted with a small subarachnoid hemorrhage in the evening. The residents put in all the “usual” orders and tuck them away for the night. I am the rounder the next day, and when I saunter into the patient’s room, this is what I find:

They were made NPO. And this isn’t just an issue for patients with a small head bleed. A grade II spleen. An orbital fracture. Cervical spine injury. The list goes on.

What do these injuries have to do with your GI tract?

Here are some pointers on writing the correct diet orders on your trauma patients:

  • Is there a plan to take them to the operating room within the next 8 hours or so? If not, let them eat. If you are not sure, contact the responsible service and ask. Once you have confirmed their OR status, write the appropriate order.
  • Have they just come out of the operating room from a laparotomy? Then yes, they will have an ileus and should be NPO.
  • Are they being admitted to the ICU? If their condition is tenuous enough that they need ICU level monitoring, then they actually do belong to that small group of patients that should be kept NPO.

But here’s the biggest offender. Most trauma professionals don’t think this one through, and reflexively write for the starvation diet.

  • Do they have a condition that will likely require an emergent operation in the very near future? This one is a judgment call. But how often have you seen a patient with subarachnoid hemorrhage have an emergent craniotomy? How often do low grade solid organ injuries fail if they’ve always had stable vital signs? Or even high grade injuries? The answer is, not often at all! So let them eat!

Bottom line: Unless your patient is known to be heading to the OR soon, or just had a laparotomy, the default trauma diet should be a regular diet! 

Nurses: Stop The Insanity! What To Do When The Doc Won’t Listen

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

– Albert Einstein

This post applies specifically to nurses. I know it’s happened to you. Your patient is having a problem. You do a little troubleshooting, but you feel that a doctor needs to know and possibly take some action. So you page them and duly note it in the medical record. No response. You do it again, and document it. No response. And a third time, with the same result.

And now what? Call someone else? Give up and hope the patient improves?

What if the doctor on call is a known asshole? Are you even reluctant to call in the first place? Do you delay as long as you possibly can?

Believe it or not, I’ve seen many chart review cases over the years where this situation does arise. And every once in a while, the patient actually dies. Sometimes this is directly related to the lack of intervention, but sometimes it just sets the ball rolling that eventually leads to patient demise days or weeks later.

What’s the answer? We all want to provide the best care possible for our patients. But sometimes social factors (or pager malfunctions) just get in the way. Here’s how to deal with it.

Every hospital / nursing unit needs to have a procedure for escalating patient care calls to more advanced providers. When one of your patients develops a problem, you usually have a pretty good idea of what the possible solutions are. So call/page the proper person (PA/NP/MD) who can provide that solution. If they don’t give you the “right answer”, then question it. They are not all-knowing.

If they give you a good explanation, go with it, but keep your eye on your patient’s progress. If they can’t explain why they are giving you the wrong answer, suggest they check with someone more senior. And if they don’t want to, let them know that you will have to. Consider no answer the same as a wrong answer.

Don’t stop going up the chain of command until you get that right answer, or an explanation that satisfies you. The hard part here is going up the chain. You may not be comfortable with this. But you do have resources that can help you that have more authority (nurse manager, supervisor, etc). If they, too, are uncomfortable, then your hospital has much bigger problems (unhealthy workplace). 

Example: trauma unit nurses at my hospital will call the first year resident first, then escalate to the junior and/or chief residents. If they don’t do the right thing, the in-house trauma attending gets the call. If they don’t handle it, then the trauma medical director (me) gets called. And, of course, I always do the right thing (chuckle). And our nurses know that the surgeons support them completely, since this facilitates the best patient care. The residents and PAs are educated about this chain of command when they first start on the trauma service, and it makes them more likely to choose the “right answer” since they know the buck may not stop with them.