All posts by TheTraumaPro

What Is The Curbside Consult? And The ELEVENTH Law of Trauma!

Surgeons, I’m sure you’ve had an experience something like this at some point:

You happen to be wandering through the emergency department and one of your Emergency Medicine colleagues approaches you and says, “Hey, I ‘ve got this patient I’m seeing that I just want to run by you…”

How should you deal with this? They want a quick tidbit of information to help them decide what to do with the patient. Can they send them home, or should they “formally” consult you?

It’s important to look at the pros and cons of this practice. First the pros:

  • It’s direct. You’re right there. No phone calls, no paging.
  • It’s quick. Just a quick description  of the problem, and a prompt answer. Then everyone can get on with their business.

But then there are the cons:

  • Situational accuracy. The consultee has not seen the patient, so the information they have been given was filtered through the consulter. Any number of cognitive biases are possible, so the real story may not be exactly as it seems.
  • Interpretation of the recommendation. Other cognitive biases are also possible as the consulter acts on and implements the recommendations of the consulter. Have they really been followed?
  • Lack of documentation. This is the biggest problem with a curbside consult. The consultee may act without documenting the source of the recommendation. Or, they may document that they spoke with Dr. Consultee. In either case, one or the other may be hung out to dry, so to speak.

Consider what happens if there is a complication in the care of that patient. There is no way to really determine what was said during that conversation a week or two years later. It boils down to recollections and may end up as a he said … she said situation. And in the worst case scenario, if such a case were to enter the medicolegal arena, there is no official record that any recommendation was made or followed. It’s a very easy case for the plaintiff’s attorney to prevail.

So this leads to my new Eleventh Law of Trauma:

Work not documented is work not done

Bottom line: There is no such thing as a curbside consult! The consultee should say, “I’d better take a look at this patient, why don’t you officially consult me?”

In doing this, the consulter gets to use their own clinical and cognitive skills, and thus render a real opinion based on first hand experience. The consultee gets the most accurate recommendations possible, and they are noted in the record so there is no room for misinterpretation. And finally, there is good documentation from both that will stand up in a court of law if needed.

In The Next Trauma MedEd Newsletter: Some Potpourri!

Finally! It’s been a while, and now it’s time to put pen to paper once again. Fingers to keyboard? Whatever!

The April issue of Trauma MedEd will be sent out to subscribers on Friday, and will provide some random interesting topics.

This issue is being released to subscribers at 9am Central time on Friday. If you sign up any time before then, you will receive it, too. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until it goes out to the general public at the end of next week. Click this link right away to sign up now and/or download back issues.

In this issue, learn about:

  • Who’s Better At Invasive Procedures? Advanced care providers or residents?
  • How Many Salt Tabs In A Liter Of Saline?
  • Mainstem Intubation In Pediatric Patients
  •    And How To Avoid It!
  • Giving TXA Via An Intraosseous Line?

As always, this month’s issue will go to all of my subscribers first. If you are not yet one of them, click this link right away to sign up now and/or download back issues.

Detecting Rib Fractures In The Elderly

It’s well known that our elders do less well than younger folks after injury. The number of complications is higher, there tends to be more loss of independence during recovery, and mortality is increased. This is not only true of high energy trauma like car crashes, but also much lower energy events such as a fall from standing.

Rib fractures are common after falls in the elderly and contribute to significant morbidity if not treated adequately. Traditionally, they are identified through a combination of physical exam and chest x-ray. Unfortunately, only half of rib fractures are visible on x-ray. It falls to the physical exam to detect the rest.

A group at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston explored the utility of using chest CT in an attempt to determine if this would result in more appropriate and cost-efficient care in the elderly. They performed a retrospective study of 3 years of their own data on patients aged 65 or more presenting after a mechanical fall and receiving a rib fracture diagnosis. Imaging was ordered at the discretion of the physician. A total of 330 patients were elderly, fell, and had both chest x-ray and chest CT obtained. This was a very elderly group, with a mean age of 84 years!

Here are the factoids:

  • Rib fractures were seen on chest x-ray in 40 patients (12%) and on CT in an additional 56 ; 234 patients had no fractures on either
  • When fractures were seen on both studies, CT identified a median of 2 more fractures than chest x-ray
  • Patients with fractures not seen on chest x-ray were admitted significantly more often than those without fractures (91% vs 78%)
  • Mortality, admission to ICU, ICU length of stay, and hospital length of stay were not different if fractures were seen only on CT
  • CT scan identified new issues or clarified diagnoses suggested by chest x-ray in 14 cases, including one malignancy
  • Rib detail images were obtained in 13 patients and proved to be better than chest x-ray, but not quite as good as CT scan

Conclusion: use of CT for rib fracture diagnosis resulted in a few more admissions, but no change in hospital resource utilization, complications, or mortality.

Bottom line: Hmm…, read the paper closely. The authors conclude that more patients with CT-only identified rib fractures are admitted. But compared to what? Unfortunately, patients without rib fractures on CT. What about comparing to patients who had fractures seen on chest x-ray too? If that number is the same, then of what additional use is CT? Identifying a few incidentalomas?

Given that there is no change in the usual outcome measures listed here, it doesn’t seem like there is any additional benefit to adding CT. And I can see a lot of downsides: cost, radiation, and possible exposure to IV contrast. In my mind, there is still nothing that beats a good physical exam and a chest x-ray. Skip the CT scan. And don’t even think about ordering rib detail images! That’s so 1990s. And even if no rib fractures are seen on imaging, physical exam is the prime determinant for admitting your patient for aggressive pain management and pulmonary toilet.

Reference: Chest CT imaging utility for radiographically occult rib fractures in elderly fall-injured patients. J Trauma 86(5):838-843, 2019.

Arms Up or Arms Down In Torso CT Scans?

CT scan is a valuable tool for initial screening and diagnosis of trauma patients. However, more attention is being paid to radiation exposure and dosing. Besides selecting patients carefully and striving for ALARA radiation dosing (as low as reasonably achievable) by adjusting technique, what else can be done? Obviously, shielding parts of the body that do not need imaging is simple and effective. But what about simply changing body position?

One simple item to consider is arm positioning in torso scanning. There are no consistent recommendations for use in trauma scanning. Patients with arm and shoulder injuries generally keep the affected upper extremity at their side. Radiologists prefer to have the arms up if possible to reduce scatter and provide clearer imaging.

Radiation physics research has examined arm positioning and its effect on radiation dose. A retrospective review of 690 patients used dose information computed by the CT software and displayed on the console. Radiation exposure was estimated using this data and was stratified by arm positioning. Even though there are some issues with study design, the results were impressive.

The dose results were as follows:

  • Both arms up: 19.2 mSv (p<0.0000001)
  • Left arm up: 22.5 mSv
  • Right arm up: 23.5 mSv
  • Arms down: 24.7 mSv

Bottom line: Do everything you can to reduce radiation exposure:

  1. Be selective with your imaging. Do you really need it?
  2. Work with your radiologists and physicists to use techniques that reduce dose yet retain image quality
  3. Shield everything that’s not being imaged.
  4. Think hard about getting CT scans in children
  5. Raise both arms up during torso scanning unless injuries preclude it.

Reference: Influence of arm positioning on radiation dose for whole body computed tomography in trauma patients. J Trauma 70(4):900-905, 2011.

Antihypertensive Treatment In Acute TBI

Yes, we know high blood pressure can be bad. Over the long term, it can accelerate atherosclerotic heart disease and pound away at the kidneys and brain. And when it is acutely elevated to critical levels, it can lead to stroke.

But is it always bad in trauma? Trauma hurts like hell, so it’s no wonder than many of our patients (not suffering blood loss of course) are hypertensive.  But how often have you seen this scenario occur:

An elderly patient fell from standing, striking her head. She is brought to your ED by ground EMS. She has a GCS of 8 (E1 V3 M4) with a BP of 200/130 and pulse of 56.  This meets your trauma activation criteria and the team assembles to meet the patient.

As you move her onto the bed, one of your colleagues calls out for some nicardipine to control the pressure. Is this a wise move? Remember the First Law of Trauma:

Any anomaly in your trauma patient is due to trauma, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

What else can cause hypertension and bradycardia in your trauma patient? In this case, certainly a subdural or epidural hematoma.

And why is that happening? Because the intracranial pressure is elevated from the space-occupying lesion. Remember the formula for cerebral perfusion pressure (CPP):


Where MAP = mean arterial pressure and ICP = intracranial pressure.  Normally the MAP is around 90 torr and ICP is about 10 torr. Thus, the normal CPP is approximately 80. The range is 60  to well over 100 torr, and flow autoregulation keeps brain perfusion constant over this range.

But let’s say that we are psychic and know the ICP of our patient to be 60 because of a large subdural hematoma. Her current CPP is 150 – 60 or about 90 torr. What happens if we start her on a nicardipine drip or some other antihypertensive medication? We can certainly normalize the blood pressure to 120/80. But now her CPP drops to 90  – 60 = 30 torr!

Congratulations, you have just shut down circulation to her brain!

Bottom line: Think first before calling for antihypertensive medications in patients who may have increased intracranial pressure. You may be sabotaging the only mechanism protecting their brain while you are calling your neurosurgeon for help. Your top priority is to get them to the CT scanner while permitting that pressure. If it turns out that there is no evidence for pathology that would lead to increased ICP, then turn to the antihypertensive agents to help protect against stroke.