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!

Why Is So Much Published Research So Bad?

Yesterday, my colleague the Skeptical Scalpel wrote about an interesting (?) paper published in Emergency Medicine Australasia. It was a small study that concluded that ED wait times decreased as the number of people presenting to be seen decreased. Where’s the mystery in that? Overstating the obvious?

But if you look through almost any journal today, you will find studies that leave you 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? With tens of thousands of articles being published every year?

Because there is no 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. There is no planning. There is no consideration of what questions we really need to answer. Just a random bunch of easy to get published thoughts that never get cited by anyone else. 

Bottom line: How do we fix this? Not easily. Instead of focusing on the quantity of publications, the “authorities” need to focus in on their quality. Extra credit should be given to multicenter trial involvement, prospective studies, and other higher quality projects. The actual number of publications should not matter as much as how much high quality work is in progress. Sure, the sheer number of studies published will decline, but the quality will increase exponentially!

Should Extended FAST (eFAST) Be The Standard Of Care In Trauma Activations?

Focused abdominal sonography for trauma (FAST) has been around in one form or another for about 40 years. Sonographic examination of the abdomen was used in Europe in the 1970s, while the US was using diagnostic peritoneal lavage (DPL). FAST finally moved to the US in the 1990s and continues to this day. It has also been incorporated in the Advanced Trauma Life Support Course sponsored by the American College of Surgeons.

About 10 years ago, emergency physicians began using sonography to evaluate the thorax as well. The technique was primarily used to detect air (and possibly fluid) in the pleural space. Sensitivity and specificity have increased nicely over the years as the technology and our experience has improved.

Most trauma centers incorporate FAST into their trauma activations. Although it was initially vetted using blunt trauma patients, it can be and is used for evaluation in penetrating trauma. But relatively few centers expanded it to eFAST to evaluate the chest. Should they?

Bottom line: Definitely! Extended FAST adds about a minute to the overall exam and may provide information before the chest x-ray is obtained. It may also show pathology that the typical trauma chest x-ray cannot due to patient body habitus and supine positioning. I recommend that the eFAST be the standard of care in trauma activations if you have an ultrasound machine. Important! But be sure to have a way to record and perform quality reviews of the information obtained.

Related posts:

How To Make TEG / ROTEM Useful

A lot of papers have been written on the use of thromboelastography in trauma. And pretty much any meeting or course you may attend has at least one talk on it. And I get it. It can be an important tool in treating trauma patients who have some sort of coagulation disturbance. It helps us figure out what specific part of the coagulation process is out of whack and suggests how we can fix it.

But there are a few problems, as I mentioned yesterday. And the “friction” that those issues cause overall decreases how useful it is. Here’s a partial list of the problems:

  • The equipment costs money, and the disposables that must be used for every patient do, too.
  • Where do you put the machine? Most hospitals can’t put one unit in every possible area it might be used.
  • How to you get the results to a care area if there is no unit there?
  • There is a significant learning curve for interpreting the results
  • How can it be integrated into the massive transfusion protocol?

The main issue is that the current state of TEG and ROTEM are very similar to the state of electrocardiography shortly after it’s discovery. Here’s what you got then:

In order to get the most from an EKG, you need to combine this tracing with that from other leads, do a bunch of measurements, look for abnormal shapes and elevations/depressions, etc.  This is exactly where we are with TEG and ROTEM today. Relatively crude, and it takes a lot of work to use it.

The tracing below shows where we are with EKGs today. A computer program looks at all the tracings, and rapidly applies a complex set of rules to come to a set of diagnoses. Notice in the image below that this reading is “unconfirmed.” But how many times in your career have you seen a cardiologist correct one of these? The machines are actually very good!

Bottom line: The tracing above is where we need to be with TEG and ROTEM. Instead of a clinician staring at a developing tracing and figuring out what products to give, these machines need to be just like an automated EKG machine. Sure, a human can still stare at the trace. But the machine will automatically monitor it, apply rules about what abnormalities are present and what is needed to correct them. Send off your blood specimen, and within minutes instructions like “infuse 2 units of plasma now” or “give 12u cryo now” appear. These may be displayed on a monitor in the treatment area, or be broadcast to the phone or pager of the responsible clinicians.

Current TEG/ROTEM equipment is what I would consider 1st generation. The next generation will reduce or remove much of the “friction” in the current process and allow us to really integrate TEG/ROTEM meaningfully into the massive transfusion protocol for trauma. And for anyone who develops this 2nd generation equipment, don’t forget my royalty checks for this idea! 

Related post:

Gunshots And CT Scan Of The Abdomen

Abdominal gunshots and CT scanning are usually thought to be mutually exclusive. The usual algorithm generally means a prompt trip to the operating room. But as with many things in the management of trauma, there are always exceptions. The key is to understand when exactly one of those exceptions is warranted.

Exception 1: Did it really enter the abdomen? Gunshots have enough energy that they usually do get inside. However, freaky combinations of trajectory and body habitus do occur. There are three tests that must be passed in order to entertain the possibility that the bullet may not have made it inside your patient: physiology, anatomy, and physical exam. For physiology, the patient must be completely hemodynamically stable. Anatomically, the trajectory must make sense. If the known wounds and angles allow a tangential course make sense, then fine. But if there is a hole in the epigastrium and another next to the spine, you have to assume the bullet went straight through. Finally, the physical exam must be normal. No peritonitis. No generalized guarding. Focal tenderness only in the immediate area of any wounds. If all three of these criteria are passed, then a CT can be obtained to demonstrate the trajectory.

Exception 2: Did it enter an unimportant area of the abdomen? Well, there’s really only one of these, and that’s the area involving the right lobe of the liver and extending posteriorly and lateral to it. If the bullet hole(s) involve only this area, and the three tests above are passed, CT may confirm an injury that can be observed. However, there should only be a minimal amount of free fluid, and no soft tissue changes of any kind adjacent to bowel.

Exception 3: A prompt trauma lap was performed, but you think you need more information afterwards. This is rare. The usual belief is that the eyes of the surgeon provide the gold standard evaluation during a trauma lap. For most low velocity injuries with an easily understood trajectory, this is probably true. However, high velocity injuries, those involving multiple projectiles, or complicated trajectories (side to side) can be challenging for even the most experienced surgeon. Some areas (think retroperitoneum or deep in the pelvis) are tough to visualize completely, especially when there’s blood everywhere. These are also the cases most likely to require damage control surgery, so once the patient has been temporarily closed, warmed and resuscitated, a quick trip to CT may be helful in revealing unexpected shrapnel, unsuspected injuries, or other issues that may change your management. Even a completely unsurprising scan can provide a higher sense of security.

Bottom line: CT of the abdomen and gunshots to that area may actually coexist in some special cases. Make sure the physiology, anatomy and physical exam criteria are passed first. I also make a point of announcing to all trainees that taking these patients to CT is not the norm, and carefully explain the rationale. Finally, apply the concept of the null hypothesis to this situation. Your null hypothesis should state that your patient does not need a CT after gunshot to the abdomen, and you have to work to prove otherwise!