All posts by TheTraumaPro

How We Take Care Of Our Elders

Time for some philosophy again. A paper in Neurology released ahead of print confirms something I’m seeing more and more often. Specifically, hospitals can be bad for you, particularly if you are elderly.

The trauma population that we all see is aging with the overall population. Being older predisposes one to injuries that are more likely to require hospitalization. And unfortunately, being in the hospital can have adverse effects. I’m not just talking about the usual culprits such as medical errors or exposure to resistant bacteria. 

The Chicago Health and Aging Project has been tracking a group of elders as they age, and has been making a number of interesting observations. Most recently, they have released information on a correlation between cognitive decline and hospitalization. They tracked nearly 1900 people, of whom 1335 ending up in the hospital for one reason or another (not just trauma). They found that there is a baseline rate of global cognitive decline with age (surprise!). Unfortunately, this rate of decline accelerated 2.4 times in the hospitalized group. Episodic memory scores declined 3.3 times faster, and executive function declined 1.7 times faster. And declines tended to be more pronounced in patients who had more severe illness, longer hospital stay, or advanced age.

There are some issues with the study. It is large, but it is a correlation study nonetheless. Are the effects due to something that happens in the hospital, or are they caused by something not evaluated by the study? It’s also not clear to me whether the declines noted are clinically significant in the daily lives of the people studied, or are just a number on some scale.

Bottom line: Some of the “benign” things that we do to patients in the hospital can have a big impact on their functional outcome. Always remember that they are more fragile than the young trauma patients we take care of. That extra fluid bolus, or dose of morphine, exposure to IV contrast, or noisy neighbor that keeps them from sleeping can make a real difference in how they do. Always consider that everything you do to them might kill them. Then seriously reconsider whether you really, really need to order it at all.


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Reference: Cognitive decline after hospitalization in a community population of older persons. Neurology, epub ahead of print, March 21, 2012.

Prehospital To Trauma Team Handoff: A Solution

I’ve written about handoffs between EMS and the trauma team over the past two days. It’s a problem at many hospitals. So what to do?

Let’s learn from our experience in the OR. Best practice in the operating room mandates a specific time out process that involves everyone in the OR. Each participant in the operation has to stop, identify the patient, state what the proposed procedure and location is, verify that the site is marked properly, and that they have carried out their own specific responsibilities (e.g. infused the antibiotic).

Some trauma centers have initiated a similar process for their trauma team as well. Here’s how it works:

  • The patient is rolled into the resuscitation room by EMS personnel, but remains on the stretcher.
  • Any urgent cares continue, such as ventilation.
  • The trauma team leader is identified and the EMS lead gives a brief report while everyone in the room listens. The report consists of only mechanism, all identified injuries, vital signs (including pupils and GCS), any treatments provided. This should take no more than 30 seconds.
  • An opportunity for questions to be asked and answered is presented
  • The patient is moved onto the hospital bed and evaluation and treatment proceed as usual.
  • EMS personnel provide any additional information to the scribe, and may be available to answer any additional questions for a brief period of time.

Bottom line: This is an excellent way to improve the relationship between prehospital and trauma team while improving patient care. It should help increase the amount of clinically relevant information exchanged between care providers. Obviously, there will be certain cases where such a clean process is not possible (e.g. CPR in progress). I recommend that all trauma programs consider implementing this “Trauma Activation Time Out For EMS” concept.


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EMS Handoff: Comments

I received quite a bit of feedback from yesterday’s column. Obviously this topic strikes a chord with my readers. Here was one well thought out comment from Tim Kaye in California:

I have worked for 15 years as a paramedic in a very busy EMS system in Northern California. When I was new, I used to fight to make myself heard in the trauma room, only adding to the din and chaos, which was usually – and rightly so – squelched by a decisive bark from the trauma team leader for quiet as they assesed the critical patient. What I came to realize was that if I wanted to benifit my patient, I needed to re-invent how I was taught to give my reports. Instead of trying to include everything in a minutes-long speech, I would instead follow this pattern:

1) Ask as I was walking in who I would give report to, thereby establishing clear communication and not just shouting to no one in particular.

2) A very brief, one sentence explination of MOI, and I forced myself to hold fast to the one sentence rule.

3) Critical findings/life-threats were reported next, followed by any interventions. This gave the trauma team leader an idea of where to focus their exam for similar life-threats.

4) I would give only selected vital signs in my rapid report. These included anything aberant or concering, followed by heart rate, respiratory rate and end-tidal CO2 on all patients.

5) I would conclude by asking the trauma team leader specifically if they had any immediate questions.

Because I structure and practice this method, my reports typically last about 20-30 seconds. Realizing that there are major gaps in the initial report, I then go and speak directly to the scribe and fill in those gaps with such information as further description of MOI, a complete set of vital signs and trends, blood glucose, IV sites, etc.

This method allows for rapidly communicating vital information quickly, and detailed information to the appropriate staff member at the appropriate time.

To tie up any loose ends, after I completed my charting, I ALWAYS stop by the trauma bay and check one last time with both the trauma team leader and the scribe and ask if they have any more questions. As I made this my practice, ER attendings, trauma surgeons and nurses all came to expect this final check-in to clear up any last questions. This worked in a most excellent fashion to provide continuity of care, to develop relationships with all of the staff at our two Level-1 and one Level-2 centers, and for personal education as I checked in to what the diagnosis and course of treatment was for the patient.

I would argue that the handoff is really a two-way process. Tim has found a way to do the right thing in an environment where the other half of the team is too busy / not listening / not aware.

Tomorrow I’ll share what I think is the best approach to this process. Hint: it involves active participation by both sets of trauma professionals.

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The Handoff: Opportunity for Improvement

Handoffs occur in trauma care all the time. EMS hands the patient off to the trauma team. ED physicians hand off to each other at end of shift. They also hand off patients to the inpatient trauma service. Residents on the trauma service hand off to other residents at the end of their call shift. Attending surgeons hand off to each other as they change service or a call night ends. The same process also occurs with many of the other disciplines involved in patient care as well.

Every one of these handoffs is a potential problem. Our business is incredibly complicated, and given that dozens of details on dozens of patients need to be passed on, the opportunity for error is always present. And the fact that resident work hours are becoming more and more limited increases the need for handoffs and the number of potential errors.

Today, I’ll look at information transfer at the first handoff point, EMS to trauma team. Some literature has suggested that there are 16 specific prehospital data points that affect patient outcome and must be included in the EMS report. How good are we at making sure this happens?

An observational study was carried out at a US Level I trauma center with video recording capabilities in the resuscitation room. Video was reviewed to document the “transmission” part of the EMS report. Trauma chart documentation was also reviewed to see if the “reception” half of the process by the trauma team occurred as well. 

A total of 96 handoffs were reviewed over a one year period. The maximum number of elements in the study was 1536 (96 patients x 16 data elements). The total number “transmitted” was 473, but only 329 of those were “received.” This is not quite as bad as it seems, since 483 points were judged as not applicable by the reviewers. However, this left 580 that were applicable but were not mentioned by EMS. Of the 16 key elements, the median number transmitted was 5, with a range of 1-9. 

This sounds bad. However, the EMS professionals and the physicians have somewhat different objectives. EMS desperately wants to share what they know about the scene and the patient. The trauma team wants to start the evaluation process using their own eyes and hands. What to do?

Bottom line: EMS to trauma team handoffs are a problem for many hospitals. EMS has a lot of valuable information, and the trauma team wants to keep the patient alive. They are both immersed in their own world, working to do what they think is best for the patient. Unfortunately, they could do better if the just worked together a bit more. 

Tomorrow I’ll share a solution to the EMS-trauma team handoff problem.

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Reference: Information loss in emergency medical services handover of trauma patients. Prehosp Emerg Care 13:280-285, 2009.

Clearing The Cervical Spine With MRI

If you follow the trauma literature, clearance of the cervical spine in obtunded patients is confusing at best. Although there is some literature out there that suggests that a good cervical CT alone is adequate, I’m not a believer. I’ve seen a case where the radiologist called the scan normal and a good spine surgeon called an injury and was right. So I’m reluctant to use CT alone because the skills of radiologists vary widely. I might be able to believe a dedicated neuroradiologist, but you can’t guarantee one will be reading your patient’s images.

So I fall back on the routine of clearing the bones with a CT scan, and the ligaments with something else. That something else could be a clinical exam (not available in the obtunded patient), flexion-extension images under fluoroscopy (makes a lot of people nervous), keeping the patient in a collar for weeks (skin breakdown), or an MRI. The problem is that there is little guidance in the literature regarding how good MRI is or the best way to use it.

A recent paper in the Journal of Trauma retrospectively looked at 512 out of 17,000 patients (!) seen over 5 years at one trauma center who had both CT and MRI of the c-spine. They wanted to determine if MRI was of any value in cervical spine clearance. Only 150 met the inclusion criteria (GCS<13, no obvious neuro deficit, normal CT). Half of the MRIs were normal. Of the abnormal ones, 81% showed a ligamentous or soft tissue injury. None were deemed unstable and no specific management was needed for any of the abnormal scans.

The authors interpreted their data as showing that MRI provided no additional useful information. However, numbers were (very) small, so the likelihood of them seeing someone with an unstable ligamentous injury was low. Could it be that they showed that MRI detected stable injuries well, and that they could essentially remove the collar based on that?

Bottom line: We still don’t know how to use MRI for clearance. My bias (no good data I can find) is that it is good in suggesting ligamentous injury via nearby edema. If this injury involves only one set of ligaments, it is very likely a stable one and the collar can be removed. If it involves several groups of ligaments, that is probably not the case. And how soon do we have to get the MRI after injury? Some have suggested that 72 hours is the ideal window because edema decreases afterwards. Sounds reasonable, but I can’t find a shred of evidence in the literature. For now, I’ll get an MRI within 72 hours and if it is abnormal, pass the buck to my neurosurgical colleagues so they can gnash their teeth, too.

I would be very happy if someone can help me out and point me towards some good literature on this topic!

Reference: The value of cervical magnetic resonance imaging in the evaluation of the obtunded or comatose patient with cervical trauma, no other abnormal neurological findings, and a normal cervical computed tomography. J Trauma 72(3):699-702, 2012.