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The Trauma Activation Pat-Down?

Yes, this is another one of my pet peeves. During a trauma activation, we all strive to adhere to the Advanced Trauma Life Support protocols. Primary survey, secondary survey, etc. Usually, the primary survey is done well.

But then we get to the secondary survey, and things get sloppy.

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The secondary survey is supposed to be a quick yet thorough physical exam, both front and back. But all too often it’s quick, and not so thorough. There is the usual laying on of the hands, but barely. Abdominal palpation is usually done well. But little effort is put into checking stability of the pelvis. The extremities are gently patted down with the hope of finding fractures. Joints are slightly flexed, but not stressed at all.

Is it just a slow degradation of physical exam skills? Is it increasing (and misguided) faith in the utility of the CT scanner? I don’t really know. But it’s real!

Bottom line: Watch yourself and your team as they perform the secondary survey! Your goal is to find all the injuries you can before you go to imaging. This means deep palpation, twisting and trying to bend extremities looking for fractures, stressing joints looking for laxity. And doing a good neuro exam! Don’t let your physical exam skills atrophy! Your patients will thank you.

When Should You Activate Your Backup Trauma Surgeon?

The American College of Surgeons requires all US Trauma Centers to publish a call schedule that includes a backup trauma surgeon. This is important for several reasons:

  • It maintains a high level of care when the on-call surgeon is encumbered with multiple critical patients, or has other on-call responsibilities such as acute care surgery
  • It reduces the need to place the entire trauma center on divert due to surgeon issues

However, the ACS does not provide any guidance regarding the criteria for and logistics of mobilizing the backup surgeon. In my mind, the guiding principle is a simple one:

The backup should be called any time a patient is occupying the on-call surgeon’s time to the extent that they cannot manage the care of a newly arrived (or expected to arrive) patient with critical needs that only the surgeon can provide.

There’s a lot of meat in that sentence, so let’s go over it in detail. 

First, the on-call surgeon must already be busy. This means that they are actively managing one or more patients. Depending on the structure of the call system, they may be involved with trauma patients, general/acute care surgery patients, ICU patients, or a combination thereof. Busy means tied up to the point that they cannot meaningfully manage another patient.

Note that I did not say “evaluate another patient.” Frequently, it is possible to have a resident (at an appropriate training level) or advanced practice provider (APP) see the new patient while the surgeon is tied up, say in the operating room. They can report back, and the surgeon can then weigh his or her choices regarding the level of management that will be needed. Or if operating with a chief resident, it may be possible for the surgeon to briefly leave the OR to see the second patient or quickly check in on the trauma resuscitation. Remember, our emergency medicine colleagues can easily run a trauma activation and provide initial care for major trauma patients. They just can’t operate on them.

What if the surgeon is in the OR? Should they call the backup every time they are doing a case at night? Or every time a trauma activation is called while they are doing one? In my opinion, no. The chance of having a highest level trauma activation called is not that high, and as above, the surgeon, resident, or APP may be able to assess how much attention the new patient is likely to need. But recognize that the surgeon may not meet the 15 minute trauma activation attendance requirement set forth by the ACS.

However, once such a patient does arrive (or there is notification that one of these patients is on the way), call in the backup surgeon. These would include patients that are known to, or are highly suspected of needing immediate operative management. Good examples are penetrating injuries to the torso with hemodynamic problems, or those with known uncontrolled bleeding (e.g. mangled extremity).

If two or more patients are being managed by the surgeon, and they believe that they would not be able to manage another, it’s a good idea to notify the backup that they may be needed. This lets them plan their evening better to ensure rapid availability.

Finally, what is the expected time for the backup to respond and arrive at the hospital to help? There is no firm guideline, but remember, your partner and the patient are asking for your assistance! In my opinion, total time should be no more than 30 minutes. If it takes longer, then the trauma program should look at its backup structure and come up with a way to meet this time frame.

The Next Trauma MedEd Newsletter: All Things Prevention

All trauma centers in the US, and many in other parts of the world, are required to have injury prevention programs. Level I centers in the States are also required to have a named Injury Prevention Coordinator with a job description and salary support.

In this newsletter, I’m going to dig into the specifics of injury prevention. Some of the topics I will cover include:

  • Explaining the American College of Surgeons injury prevention requirements
  • A list of the most common types of injury prevention programs around the US
  • Efficacy of specific prevention programs (violence prevention, elderly falls)
  • Making your injury prevention coordinator great
  • Tips on designing an excellent trauma prevention program
  • And more!

This issue will be available sometime in mid-December. As usual, it will be emailed to all subscribers first. About two weeks later, I’ll make it available to all here on the blog.

If you want to get it as soon as it is released, please subscribe by clicking here! And you can pick up back issues when you follow the link, too!

The Electronic Trauma Flow Sheet – Final Answer

After more than 8 years of experience, moving to an electronic trauma flow sheet is still not ready for prime time. I’ve seen many, many hospitals struggling to make it work. And all but a very few have failed.

There are two major problems. First, existing computer input technology is underdeveloped. Trying to rapidly put information into small windows on a computer, and having to switch between mouse and keyboard and back is just too slow. And second, output reports are terrible. Humans cannot scan 26 pages of chronological data and reconstruct a trauma activation in their head. There is so much extra data in the typical computer-generated reports, the signal (potential PI issues) gets lost in the noise.

The technology exists to remedy both of the problems. However, the EHR vendors keep tight control over data exchange in and out of their products. Sure, there is CareAnywhere and it’s ilk, but the user is still forced to use the vendor’s flawed input and output systems.

Bottom line: You can’t make a complex system (trauma care) easier or safer by adding complexity (the EHR). Yet.

The electronic trauma flow sheet will never work as well as it could until all the vendors settle on a strong data interchange standard to put data into and get reports out of the EHR. Once that happens, scores of startup companies will start to design easy input systems and report outputs or displays that are actually meaningful. There’s not enough interest in this niche market to make it worthwhile for a company the size of Epic or McKesson, but there is definitely enough for a lot of young companies just chomping at the bit in Silicon Valley.

Sample Pediatric Solid Organ Guideline: The Good vs The Bad

In order for a clinical practice guideline (CPG) to be both useful and readily used, they need to meet certain criteria. They must be:

  • Evidence-based (as much as that is possible given the current state of the literature) – don’t make stuff up if you don’t have to.
  • Action-oriented – they actually need to tell you what to do. They shouldn’t read like a book chapter.
  • Concise – the shorter the better.

If your CPG meets all three of these, then it’s got a pretty good chance of being followed. Here are samples of two CPGs for management of solid organ injury in kids.

Which one will you actually follow? Which one will make your brain melt?

Example 1

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or Example 2?

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Bottom line: Follow the rules for crafting your own clinical practice guidelines. Or else nobody will follow it!

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