Why Do We Always Make Our Patients NPO?

“Feed a fever, starve a… trauma patient?”

Maybe it’s just my hospital. But I suspect it happens at yours, too. It always seems that when a trauma patient is admitted, someone is trying to starve them. The default diet order seems to be “nil per os” (NPO). But why?

Let’s say a patient with a blunt injury to the spleen is admitted to the trauma center. They have stable vital signs, so they’re started on a nonoperative management protocol. Nonoperative. So why not let them eat? More than 95 out of 100 are not going to the operating room.

But they might, you say. Well first of all, they are even less likely to fail in the next 6 hours (the time interval US anesthesiologists like to use, but that’s another post). So their stomach will be reasonably empty if they do manage to need an operation. And I would say that anesthesiologists at trauma centers are experts at putting people with full stomachs to sleep. It seems that every trauma patient that I CT scan has just eaten.

What about a patient with a stab to the abdomen that doesn’t look like it fully penetrated, but you want to observe them for 12 hours or more? NPO. But what’s the point? Once again, they might need to go to the OR, right? Well, if they actually do have an injury, I want them to show me sooner rather than later. I want to stress them. I want symptoms if they have a hole in their intestine. So I let them eat.

Bottom line: The default diet in nearly any trauma patient should be “regular.” The exceptions are patients who have just come out of abdominal surgery, and those who are known to be going to OR for any reason in the next 6 hours or so. Patients who are postop from non-abdominal surgery can resume their regular diet as soon as they feel up to it. And children should almost never be made NPO unless they are definitely scheduled for surgery. They (and their parents) don’t tolerate it too well.

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.