Prehospital Lift-Assist Calls

Here’s something I was completely unaware of until just a few years ago. A number of 9-1-1 calls (quite a few, I am told) are made, not for injury or illness, but because the caller needs help getting back into bed, chair, etc. It is also common that prehospital providers are frequently called back to the same location for the same problem, or a more serious one, within hours or days.

Yet another study from Yale looked at the details of lift-assist calls in one city in Connecticut (population 29,000) during a 6 year period. The town has a fire department based EMS system with both basic and advanced life support, and they respond to 4,000 EMS calls per year. 

Some interesting results:

  • Average crew time was about 20 minutes
  • 10% of cases required additional fire department equipment, either for forced entry or for assistance with bariatric patients
  • About 5% of all calls were for lift-assist, involving 535 addresses
  • Two thirds of all calls went to one third of those addresses (174 addresses)
  • There were 563 return calls to the same address within 30 days (usual age ~ 80)
  • Return calls were for another lift-assist (39%), a fall (8%), or an illness (47%)

Bottom line: It looks to me that we are not doing our elderly patients any favors by picking them up and putting them back in their chair/bed. Lift-assist calls are really a sentinel event for someone that is getting sick or who has crossed the threshold from being able to live independently to someone who needs a little more help (assisted living, etc). Prehospital personnel should systematically look at and report the home environment, and communities should automatically involve social services to help ensure the health and well being of the elder. And a second call to the same location should mandate a medical evaluation in an ED before return to the home.

Reference: A descriptive study of the “lift-assist” call. Prehospital Emergency Care, online ahead of print, September 2012.

Drugs Are Chemicals??

One of the cornerstones of allopathic medicine is the use of drugs to treat disease conditions. And unfortunately, one of the side effects of using drugs to treat problems is the production of side effects(!).

In trauma care, even something as simple as treating pain from an injury can create major problems. Give a narcotic pain medication. The patient gets nauseated and vomits. Try a different narcotic. The patient develops constipation. Give stool softeners and cathartics. Diarrhea. Then pseudo-obstruction develops. Give neostigmine. The patient becomes bradycardic. Give… well, you get the picture.

How common are side effects? Very! Did anyone see the first TV commercials for Chantix, the smoking cessation drug? It was about 3 minutes long because of the long list of side effects that were described. I’m surprised anyone was willing to risk them just to stop smoking cigarettes.

A recent study looked at the number of side effects listed on the labels of 5,602 medications approved by the FDA. There were a grand total of 534,125 adverse drug effects described in the packaging. Some interesting statistics:

  • The number of adverse effects for ranged from 0 to 525(!) for a single drug
  • The median number of adverse effects was 49, the average was 70
  • Drugs with the most side effects are used in neurology, psychiatry and rheumatology
  • Newer drugs had significantly more adverse effects than older ones

It’s certainly easy to bash pharmaceutical companies on their products. But some of these findings may be due to more rigorous testing and monitoring, as well as nuances in the populations in which these drugs are used.

Bottom line: Drugs are chemicals! Each chemical has a number of effects, some of which are desirable, and some of which are not. The drug companies choose to market a drug based on one desired effect (e.g. control of nausea). Just remember, when you give that medication, you will probably get the desired effect, but you will just as likely also get some of the other 69 possible side effects. Be prepared, and prescribe sensibly.

Reference: A quantitative analysis of adverse events and “overwarning” in drug labeling. Arch Int Med 171(10):944-946, 2011.

The “Passing” Of The Rectal Exam In Trauma

It has long been standard operating procedure to perform a digital rectal exam in all major trauma patients. The belief has always been that valuable information about blood in the GI tract, the status of the urethra, and the neuro exam (rectal tone) could be gleaned from the exam.

Unfortunately, the exam also serves to antagonize or even further traumatize some patients, especially those who may be intoxicated to some degree. On a number of occasions I have seen calm patients become so agitated by the rectal that they required intubation for control.

So is it really necessary? A study in 2001 conducted over a 6 month period (1) showed that the rectal exam influenced management in only 1.2% of cases. The authors felt that there was some utility in 3 special cases:

  • Spinal cord injury – looking for sacral sparing
  • Pelvic fracture – looking for bone shards protruding into the rectum
  • Penetrating abdominal trauma – looking for gross blood

A more recent 2005 study (2) was also critical of the rectal exam and found that using “other clinical indicators” (physical exam and other diagnostic study information) was at least equivalent, changing management only 4% of the time. They concurred with the first two indications above as well.

The Bottom Line: For most major trauma patients, the rectal exam is not worth the patient aggravation it causes. I still recommend it for the 3 special cases listed above, however, as there are no equivalent exams for these potentially serious patient problems. And remember, DON’T do it while the patient is in the logroll position. No patient likes a rectal exam, so they’ll do their best to defeat your attempt at spine precautions if you have them on their side. Supine, frog-leg only.

1. Porter, Urcic. Am Surg. 2001 May;67(5):438-41.
2. Esposito et al. J Trauma. 2005 Dec;59(6):1314-9.

Stuff You Sterilize Other Stuff With May Not Be Sterile??

When one works in the trauma field, or medicine in general, we deal with the need for sterility all the time. We use equipment and devices that are sterile, and we administer drugs and fluids that are sterile. In surgery, we create sterile fields in which to use this sterile stuff.

In the past few years, we’ve come to the realization that the sterility we take for granted may not always be the case. There have been several cases of contaminated implanted hardware. And most recently, supposedly sterile injectable steroids were found to be contaminated with fungus, leading to several fatal cases of meningitis.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine brings a bizarre problem to light: microbial stowaways in the topical products we use to sterilize things. Most drugs and infused fluids are prepared under sterile conditions. However, due to the antimicrobial activity of topical antiseptics, there is no requirement in the US that they be prepared in this way.

A number of cases of contamination have been reported over the years:

  • Iodophor – contamination with Buckholderia and Pseudomonas occurred during manufacture, leading to dialysis catheter infection and peritonitis
  • Chlorhexidine – contaminated with Serratia, Buckholderia and Ralstonia by end users, leading to wound infections, catheter infections, and death
  • Benzalkonium chloride – contaminated with Buckholderia and Mycobacteria by end users, causing septic arthritis and injection site infections

Bottom line: Nothing is sacred! This problem is scarier than you think, because our most basic assumptions about these products makes it nearly impossible for us to consider them when tracking down infection sources. Furthermore, they are so uncommon that they frequently may go undetected. The one telltale sign is the presence of infection from weird bacteria. If you encounter these bugs, consider this uncommon cause. Regulatory agencies need to get on this and mandate better manufacturing practices for topical antiseptics.

Reference: Microbial stowaways in topical antiseptic products. NEJM 367:2170-2173, Dec 6 2012.

Trauma Mythbusters: NSAIDs And Fracture Healing

Trauma hurts like hell. Over the years, we’ve developed quite a few ways of combating this pain. A number of drug classes have been developed to reduce it. One of the more common non-narcotic drug classes are the NSAIDs. As I’ve mentioned before, every drug has dozens of effects. Drug companies market a particular medication based on one of the predominant effects. All the others are considered side effects.

NSAIDs are not unique; they have lots of side effects as well. In 2003, several papers brought to light possible interactions between these drugs and fracture healing. Specifically, there were questions about these drugs interfering with the healing process and of increasing the number of delayed unions or nonunions. But once again, how convincing were these papers, really?

It would seem to make sense that NSAIDs could interfere with bone healing. This  process relies heavily on the regulation of osteoblast and osteoclast function, which itself is regulated by prostaglandins. Since prostaglandins are synthesized by the COX enzymes, COX inhibitors like the NSAIDs should have the potential to impair this process. Indeed, animal studies in rats and rabbits seem to bear this out.

But as we have seen before, good animal studies don’t always translate well to human experience. Although a study from 2005 suggested that NSAID administration in older patients within 90 days of injury had a higher incidence of fracture nonunion, the study design was not a very good one. It is equally likely that patients who required these drugs in this age group may have been at higher risk for nonunion in the first place.

In fact, there are no large, prospective randomized studies that have explored the effect of short-term or long-term NSAID administration on fracture repair. But there have been several smaller studies that showed absolutely no effect on nonunion with short-term administration of this drug class. Yet the dogma that leads us to avoid giving these drugs persists.

Bottom line: Once again, the animal data is clear but the human data is not. Although there are theoretical concerns about their use, there is not enough solid risk:benefit information to abandon short-term NSAID use in patients who really need them. NSAIDs can and should be prescribed in patients with short-term needs and simple fractures.


  1. Effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on bone formation and soft-tissue healing. J AM Acad Orthop Surg 12:139-43, 2004.
  2. Effect of COX-2 on fracture-healing in the rat femur. J Bone Joint Surg Am 86:116-123, 2004.
  3. Effects of perioperative anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating therapy on surgical wound healing. Pharmacotherapy 25:1566-1591, 2005.
  4. Pharmacological agents and impairment of fracture healing: what is the evidence? Injury 39:384-394, 2008.
  5. High dose nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs compromise spinal fusion. Can J Anaesth 52:506-512, 2005.