All posts by TheTraumaPro

Trauma Care And HIPAA Demystified

HIPAA

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation out there regarding HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). This law was enacted in 1996 with the intent of protecting the health insurance benefits of workers who lose or change their jobs, providing standards for electronic health care transactions, and protecting a patient’s sensitive health information. This last part has caused much grief among trauma professionals.

It is commonplace for a trauma patient to require the services of many providers, from the initial prehospital crew, doctors and nurses at the initial hospital, yet another ambulance or aeromedical crew, professionals at a receiving trauma center, rehab or transitional care providers, and the patient’s primary physician to name a few. Unfortunately, because there can be significant financial penalties for violating the HIPAA privacy guidelines, providers are more likely to err (incorrectly) on the side of denying information to others outside their own institution.

All of the people mentioned above are considered “covered entities” and must abide by the HIPAA Privacy Rule. This rule allows us to release protected information for treatment, payment and “health care operations” within certain limits. The first and last items are the key provisions for most trauma professionals.

Treatment includes provision, coordination and management of care, as well as consultations and referrals (such as transferring to a trauma center). Think of this as the forward flow of information about your patient that accompanies them during their travels.

Health care operations include administrative, financial, legal and quality improvement activities. These quality improvement activities depend on the reverse flow of information to professionals who have already taken care of the patient. They need this feedback to ensure they continue to provide the best care possible to everyone they touch.

Bottom line: Trauma professionals do not have to deny patient information to others if they follow the rules. Obviously, full information must be provided to EMS personnel and receiving physicians when a patient is transferred to a trauma center. But sending information the other way is also okay when used for performance improvement purposes. This includes providing feedback to prehospital providers, physicians, and nurses who were involved in the patient’s care at every point before the transfer. The key is that the information must be limited and relevant to that specific encounter.

Feedback letters and forms, phone conversations and other types of communications for PI are fine! But stay away from email, which is not secure and is usually a violation of your institutional privacy policies.

Always consult your hospital compliance personnel if you have specific questions about HIPAA compliance.

Reference: HIPAA Privacy Rule

The Value of Protocols in Trauma

Most trauma centers have a massive trauma protocol. Many have pain management or alcohol withdrawal or a number of other protocols. The question sometimes comes up: why do we need another protocol? Can we show some benefit to using a protocol?

I’ve looked at the literature, and unfortunately there’s not a lot to go on. Here are my thoughts on the value of protocols.

In my view, there are a number of reasons why protocols need to be developed for commonly encountered issues. 

  • They allow us to build in adherence to any known practice guidelines or literature.
  • They help conserve resources by standardizing care orders and resource use.
  • They reduce confusion. Nurses do not have to guess what cares are necessary based on the specific admitting surgeon.
  • They reduce errors for the same reason. All patients receive a similar regimen, so potential errors are more easily recognized.
  • They promote team building, particularly when the protocol components involve several different services within the hospital.
  • They teach a consistent, workable approach to our trainees. When they graduate, they are familiar with a single, evidence based approach that will work for them in their practice.

A number of years ago, we implemented a solid organ injury protocol here at Regions Hospital. I noted that there were large variations in simple things like time at bedrest, frequency of blood draws, how long the patient was kept without food and whether angiography should be considered. Once we implemented the protocol, patients were treated much more consistently and we found that costs were reduced by over $1000 per patient. Since we treat about 200 of these patients per year, the hospital saved quite a bit of money! And our blunt trauma radiographic imaging protocol has significantly reduced patient exposure to radiation.

Bottom line: Although the proof is not necessarily apparent in the literature, protocol development is important for trauma programs for the reasons outlined above. But don’t develop them for their own sake. Identify common problems that can benefit from consistency. It will turn out to be a very positive exercise and reap the benefits listed above.

Related posts:

Unnecessary Triage To High Level Trauma Centers

Trauma centers and trauma systems are dedicated to getting the right patient to the right hospital at the right time. In the US, The American College of Surgeons (ACS) has set forth criteria for identifying injured patients that should be taken to trauma centers (right patient). The ACS and a number of state authorities have also developed rules for becoming a trauma center (right hospital). Many state authorities have developed additional rules for setting maximum transfer times to the trauma centers (right time).

However, it is possible to short circuit these carefully crafted rules. It has been said (a phrase that indicates some dogma is on the way) that 85% of injured patients can be treated in the local hospital, and that only 15% need transfer to a trauma center. But most Level I and II trauma centers receive transfers from outside hospitals that are less injured than the criteria that would mandate their transfer. 

This is called “secondary overtriage.” A recent study from Dartmouth, which is a rural Level I trauma center, looked at how common this really is. They did a retrospective review of 4796 transfers in to their hospital over a 5 year period. Secondary overtriage was defined as a transferred patient with an ISS<15 and hospital stay <48 hours and no operation. The results are interesting:

  • The hospital treated 7793 patients during the study period, so transfers represented 62% of their activity
  • 24% of adult transfers (1006 patients) and 49% of pediatrics (258 patients) were considered overtriage
  • 216 patients were sent home from the ED (very irritating for families)
  • Half of overtriaged patients arrived on weekends, and 62% arrived between 6PM to 6AM
  • 8% were transferred by air(!)
  • Although Dartmouth received transfers from 72 hospitals (capacities ranged from 6 to 330 beds), 36% of overtriage patients originated from only 5 hospitals

Bottom line: Secondary overtriage is a common occurrence, found in 26% of transfers in this rural trauma center. It is reportedly closer to 40% in urban centers. Whether due to legitimate lack of resources or convenience, they increase the cost of healthcare and inconvenience families. High level trauma centers should monitor for this phenomenon, identify outlier referring facilities, and step up outreach and education to those hospitals to increase their experience and comfort with treating (and keeping) appropriate trauma patients.

Related post:

Reference: Secondary overtriage: the burden of unnecessary interfacility transfers in a rural trauma system. JAMA Surg Online First June 19, 2013.

“Medicine Is The Science Of Temporary Truths”

Does anyone know how to write a scientific paper anymore??! My impression is that a majority of articles published in medical journals these days are seriously flawed. Yes, sometimes it’s just not possible to design or execute a study the way it really should be due to scarcity of the data or ethical issues.

But a lot of stuff I read is just not very good. Poor design. Answers to things that no one really cares about. Use of the wrong statistical analysis. And even if the basic ideas and analysis are sound, so many are just not written well.

I believe that it all comes down to poor mentoring. Designing studies and writing scientific papers is an acquired skill that requires a lot of practice. And it’s tough to learn from reading lots of other people’s papers (because they’re not very good). An experienced mentor is invaluable and can accelerate the learning curve.

My own mentors, Charles Lucas and Anna Ledgerwood, taught me by repetition. And lots of it. They told me to read a bunch of papers, then try to emulate them using my own data. I remember turning my first draft in to Dr. Lucas and getting it back a few days letter. The entire thing was covered with scribbling in red pen. Almost none of my original text remained. So I revised it and gave it back. He returned it with a fewer red marks. After many iterations, we finally had a publishable paper!

The most recent Journal of Trauma includes a very nice article on how to construct a good Discussion section in your paper. There aren’t a lot of good articles on the actual technique of medical writing (go figure). But this one is definitely worth reading and will help researchers at any level!

Reference: The anatomy of an article: The discussion section: “How does the article I read today change what I will recommend to my patients tomorrow?” J Trauma 74(6):1599-1602, 2013.

Contrast Blush in Children

A contrast blush is occasionally seen on abdominal CT in patients with solid organ injury. This represents active arterial extravasation from the injured organ. In most institutions, this is grounds for call interventional radiology to evaluate and possibly embolize the problem. The image below shows a typical blush from extravasation.

Splenic contrast blush

This thinking is fairly routine and supported by the literature in adults. However, it cannot be generalized to children!

Children have more elastic tissue in their spleen and tend to do better with nonoperative management than adults. The same holds true for contrast blushes. The vast majority of children will stop bleeding on their own, despite the appearance of a large blush. In fact, if children are taken to angiography, it is commonplace for no extravasation to be seen!

Angiography introduces the risk of local complications in the femoral artery as well as more proximal ones. That, coupled with the fact that embolization is rarely needed, should keep any prudent trauma surgeon from ordering the test. It should be reserved for cases where nonoperative management is failing, but hypotension (hard fail) has not yet occurred.

The only difficult questions is “when is a child no longer a child?” Is there an age cutoff at which the spleen starts acting like an adult and keeps on bleeding? Unfortunately, we don’t know. I recommend that you use the “eyeball test”, and reserve angiography for kids with contrast extravasation who look like adults (size and body habitus).

Reference: What is the significance of contrast “blush” in pediatric blunt splenic trauma? Davies et al. J Pediatric Surg 2010 May; 45(5):916-20.