All posts by TheTraumaPro

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 a few years ago, supposedly sterile injectable steroids were found to be contaminated with fungus, leading to several fatal cases of meningitis.

An 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.

How Long Does It Take EMS To Respond?

How long does it take for EMS to get to the scene of an emergency? That’s a loaded question, because there are many, many factors that can impact this timing. If you look at the existing literature, there are few, if any, articles that have actually looked at this successfully.

A group from Aurora, IL and Wake Forest reviewed EMS records from across the country, spanning 485 agencies over a one year period. Only 911 responses were reviewed, and outliers with arrival times of more than 2 hours and transport times of 3 hours were excluded. Over 1.7 million records were analyzed, and 625 were excluded for this reason.

Here are the factoids:

  • In 71% of cases, the patient was transported to a hospital. In one quarter of cases, they were evaluated but not transported. 1% were dead on arrival, and in 2% no patient was found at the scene (!)
  • 4% of patients were transported in rural zip codes, 88% in suburban ones, and 8% from urban locations
  • Overall response time averaged 7 minutes
  • Median response times were 13 minutes for rural locations, and 6 minutes for both suburban and urban locations
  • Nearly 1 in 10 patients waited 30 minutes for EMS response in rural locations

Bottom line: There is an obvious difference in EMS response times between rural and urban/suburban locations. And there are many potential reasons for this, including a larger geographic area to be covered, volunteer vs paid squads, etc. Many of these factors are difficult, if not impossible to change. The simple fact that it takes longer to reach these patients increases their potential morbidity and mortality. Remember, time is of the essence in trauma. The patient is bleeding to death until proven otherwise. It is far easier and cost-effective to equip bystanders with the skills to assist those in need (basic first aid, CPR, Stop the Bleed, etc) while waiting for EMS to arrive.

Trauma Team Activation: What’s It Like For Your Patient?

Everyone worries about patient satisfaction these days, and rightly so. There’s quality of care, and there’s satisfaction with it. The two are tough to separate. Many hospitals administer surveys and questionnaires after discharge about the overall hospital stay. But who looks at the experience of going through a trauma activation?

A very recent paper from Cornell and Penn interviewed trauma patients within 2 days of the trauma activation, and provided a $25 incentive to participate. There were 14 questions presented during a verbal interview, all open-ended. Patients with abnormal mental status during trauma activation were excluded, and data was collected over a 7 month period.

Here are the factoids:

  • Most patients described fear and agitation, along with a loss of control
  • 93% expressed concern about things other than themselves: family, work, safety
  • Many patients remarked on the removal of their clothing. Some were concerned that they could not afford to replace them.
  • Most participants noted that they received pain medicine early, but that it was not always effective immediately
  • All participants described the team as caring and expert at what they do
  • Patients appreciated the fact that team members introduced themselves and expressed concern for their wellbeing
  • They were very observant of communication, and picked up on sidebar communications as well

Bottom line: Don’t underestimate what your patient observes and experiences during a trauma resuscitation. Unless head injured or intoxicated, they are picking up on everything you say and do. The trauma activation needs to be as patient-centered as possible while maintaining patient and team safety. Team members should be mindful of all communications, even when things are winding down. Try to spare patient clothing if possible. Use adequate analgesia and judicious sedation. And always remember to communicate clearly!

Related post:

Reference: Patient experiences of trauma resuscitation. JAMA Surg 152(9):843-850, 2017.

When Is A Physician Too Old To Practice?

There are about a quarter of a million physicians who are currently 65 or older and in practice. This represents about a quarter of those currently practicing. Unlike other professions like federal judges, FBI employees, and nuclear materials couriers, there is no mandatory retirement age for doctors. Although not forced to retire, commercial pilots are more closely monitored after they turn 65. But our profession has not really done a very good job of policing itself. It relies on voluntary action to identify struggling colleagues, who are generally reluctant to report a partner.

We are all living longer, and physicians are no exception. This means that many continue to practice well beyond the “customary” retirement age. What exactly happens to us? One study gave a quick cognitive test to a group of physicians and compared them to non-physician controls. Here are the results:

Ages ranged from 30-80 years. Note that the physician scores were consistently higher than the controls for all age groups, but declined significantly with age just like the controls. The big problem is that individuals have difficult recognizing (or accepting) their own cognitive decline.

The American College of Surgeons (ACS) assembled a workgroup to address this issue. They recommended that surgeons undergo voluntary, confidential testing of their baseline vision and physical examination starting at age 65-70, with regular re-evaluation afterwards. So far, only 3 or the more than 5,000 hospitals in the US do this. Canada has a mandatory age of 70 for commencing regular peer evaluations of competence. Obviously, the US does not.

There are really two components at play: wellness (which includes cognition) and competence. The problem is the neither correlates well with chronological age, but rather physiologic age. And the latter is impossible to quantify.

So what do we do? This is a problem that can’t be ignored from a patient safety standpoint. But it does not readily lend itself to simple pronouncements of a mandatory retirement age. There are many physicians who can and do provide excellent service to their patients well past the customary retirement age. They are able to apply a lifetime of lessons learned that their younger colleagues simply do not have.

We need uniform adoption of mandatory, not voluntary, testing of wellness and competence. Individual hospitals need to heed the recommendations of national organizations like the ACS to implement these mandatory programs to ensure fairness and avoid the specter of age discrimination lawsuits.

I’m no spring chicken anymore, and I think about this every time I find myself searching for the name of that weird retractor I need. How old is too old? What do you think?

Reference: The Aging Physician and the Medical Profession. JAMA Surgery 152(10):967-971, 2017.