Category Archives: General

Imaging After Chest Tube: Why Do It?

More dogma, or is it actually useful? Any time a chest tube (tube thoracostomy) is inserted, we automatically order a chest x-ray. Even the ATLS course recommends obtaining an image after placement. But anything we do “automatically” is grounds for critical analysis to see if there is a valid reason for doing it.

A South African group looked at the utility of this practice retrospectively in 1004 of their patients. They place 1042 tubes. Here are the factoids:

  • Patients were included if they had at least one chest x-ray obtained after insertion
  • Patients were grouped as follows: Group A (10%) had the tube inserted on clinical grounds with no pre-insertion x-ray (e.g. tension pneumothorax). Group B (19%) had a chest x-ray before and had ongoing clinical concerns after insertion. Group C (71%) had a chest-xray before and no ongoing concerns.
  • 75% of injuries were penetrating (75% stab, 25% GSW), 25% were blunt
  • Group A (insertion with pre-x-ray): 9% had post-insertion findings that prompted a management change (kinked, not inserted far enough)
  • Group B (ongoing clinical concerns): 58% required a management change based on the post-x-ray. 33% were subcutaneous or not inserted far enough (!!)
  • Group C (no ongoing clinical concerns): 32 of 710 (5%) required a management change, usually because the tube was too deep

The authors concluded that if there are no clinical concerns (tube functioning, no clinical symptoms) after insertion, then a chest x-ray is not necessary.

Bottom line: But I disagree with the authors! Even with no obvious clinical concerns, the tube may not be functioning for a variety of reasons. Hopefully, this fact would then be discovered the next day when another x-ray is obtained. But this delays the usual progression toward removing the tube promptly by at least one day. It increases hospital stay, as well as the likelihood of infection or other hospital-associated complication. A chest x-ray is cheap compared to a day in the hospital, which would potentially happen in 5% of these patients. I recommend that we continue to obtain a simple one-view chest x-ray after tube insertion.

Tomorrow: Look at the chest x-ray. Is it a good chest tube?

The next day: What if you placed the chest tube in your resuscitation room and are planning to go to CT for additional imaging? Is it worthwhile getting a chest x-ray, or should you just check the tube with the CT scan?

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Admission To Nonsurgical Service = Longer LOS?

Previous studies have shown that higher hospital costs are associated with longer length of stay (LOS). This makes sense, because the longer a patient stays in the hospital, the more that is “done” for them, and more daily charges are incurred. Obvious savings can occur if we look globally at services, medications, etc while the patient is in the hospital.

But does the admission service make a difference in LOS or cost? It shouldn’t if care is fairly uniform. A group of orthopedic surgeons at Vanderbilt in Nashville looked at a large group of isolated hip fracture patients (n=614) to see if LOS (used as a surrogate for cost) was significantly different. They also tried to control for a host of factors that could affect time in the hospital between the two groups.

Here are the factoids:

  • About half of the patients were admitted to the orthopedics service, and half to medicine
  • Median length of stay was way different! 4.5 days on Ortho vs 7 days on Medicine
  • Readmission rates were also significantly higher on Medicine, 30% vs 23%
  • After controlling for factors such as medical comorbidities, age, smoking and alcohol, ASA score, obesity, and others, a regression model showed that patients were still likely to stay about 50% longer if admitted to a medicine service.

Bottom line: Obviously, this is the experience of a single institution. But the difference in length of stay, and hence costs, was striking. As the US moves toward a bundled payment system, this will become a major problem. The initial LOS is more costly on the medicine service, and readmission for the same problem will not be reimbursed. Why the difference? Coordination of care between two services? Lack of familiarity with surgical nuances? This study did not look at that.

But it does point out the need to more closely integrate the care of the elderly in particular, and patients with a broad range of needs in general. An integrated team with orthopedic surgeons and skilled geriatricians is in order. And a set of protocols for standard preop evaluation and postop management is mandatory.

Related posts:


Does Admission to Medicine or Orthopaedics Impact a Geriatric Hip Patient’s Hospital Length of Stay? J Orthopedic Surg 30(2):95-99, 2016.

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Best Practice: Laundry Basket In The Resus Room?

How do you get patients out of their clothes during a trauma resuscitation? Most of the time, I bet your answer is “with a pair of scissors.” And once they are off, what do you do with them? Admit it. You just throw them on the floor. And sometime later, someone’s job is to find it all, put it in a bag, and store it or hand it over to the police.

There are more problems than you might think with this approach. First, and most importantly to the patient, their stuff can get lost. Swept up with all the other detritus from a trauma activation. And second, their belongings may become evidence and it’s just been contaminated.

So here’s an easy solution. Create a specific place to put the clothes. Make it small, with a tiny footprint in your trauma room. Make it movable so it can be kept out of the way. And make sure it is shaped so it can contain a large paper bag to preserve evidence without contamination.

And here’s the answer:

Yes, it’s a plain old laundry basket. The perfect solution. And best of all, these are dirt cheap when you are used to seeing what hospitals charge for stuff. So your ED can buy several ($14.29 ea on in case they can’t be cleaned anymore or just disappear.

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Physical Exam And Thoracolumbar Spine Fractures

The physical exam is an important part of the initial evaluation of trauma patients. Sometimes it actually makes the diagnosis, but much of the time it focuses further studies like x-rays or lab tests. But we can also use it as a tool to avoid further imaging. For example, consider clinical clearance of the cervical spine. A negative exam in a reliable patient allows us to remove the cervical collar.

Can we apply the same thinking to the thoracic and lumbar spines? Many of us do. No pain or tenderness equates to no imaging or log-roll precautions.

The trauma group at LAC+USC looked at this one a few years ago. They studied every blunt trauma patient over a 6-month period, and first determined if they were “evaluable.” This meant not intoxicated, head injured (GCS<15), and no distracting injury (determined very subjectively). All underwent a standard exam of the TL spine by a resident or attending surgeon.

Here are the factoids:

  • 886 patients were enrolled, and 218 (25%) were not evaluable using the criteria above
  • 11% of the non-evaluable patients were found to have a TL spine fracture by CT, whereas only 8% of the evaluable group did
  • Of the evaluable patients, half (29) had no signs or symptoms of fracture
  • Of those 29 without signs or symptoms, two had a “clinically significant” fracture. Both were younger (20 and 59). One had a T7 compression and a transverse process fracture, the other a T9 compression fracture. Both were treated with a TLSO brace.
  • Of the 27 who could not be examined, 11 had “clinically significant” fractures; 8 were treated with TLSO and 6 with surgery (obviously some overlap there)

Bottom line: So physical exam of the thoracic and lumbar spine sucks, right? Not quite so fast! First, this is a small-ish study, but with enough patients to be intriguing. The biggest issue is that we don’t really know what is “clinically significant.” Treatment of stable fractures of the spine is controversial, and our friendly neighborhood neurosurgeons vary tremendously in how they do it. Ask five neurosurgeons and you’ll get six different answers.

Braces are expensive, and the optimal choice is not clear yet. At my hospital, we are treating select ones with a binder for comfort or a simple backpack brace. The fancier ones like the TLSO easily cost over $1000!

At this point, I recommend that you use a good blunt imaging practice guideline like the one below, coupled with a good physical exam. If the patient has sufficient mechanism to break something (which decreases with patient age), then image them. If they don’t, but have an abnormal exam, image them anyway. And we’ll wait for the next bigger/better study!

Related posts:

Reference: Clinical examination is insufficient to rule out thoracolumbar spine injuries. J Trauma 70(1):174-179, 2011.

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Aspirin For DVT Prophylaxis In Trauma

The use of mechanical and pharmacologic prophylaxis for prevention of deep venous thrombosis (DVT) and venous thromboembolism (VTE) in trauma patients is nearly universal. However, no matter how closely we adhere to existing guidelines, some patients will develop these conditions. Indeed, about 80% of patient who suffer some type of VTE event were receiving prophylaxis at the time.

Trauma is a major factor in causing hypercoagulability. Although current chemoprophylaxis focuses on clotting factors, platelets play a big part in the clot formation process. Our usual drugs, though (various flavors of heparin), have no effect on them.

What about adding aspirin to the regimen? My orthopedic colleagues have been requesting this for years. There is a reasonable amount of data in their literature that it is effect in patients with knee arthroplasty only. As usual, it is misguided to try to generalize management based on experience from one specific body region or operation.

A single Level I trauma center reviewed its data on aspirin prophylaxis for trauma patients. They reviewed their registry data from 2006 to 2011. They identified 172 trauma patients with duplex ultrasound proven DVT. These patients were matched with 1,901 control patients who underwent at least one duplex and never developed DVT. Matching was performed carefully to ensure that age, probability of death, number of DVT risk factors, and presence of TBI were similar. The total number of matched patients studied was 110.

And here are the factoids:

  • About 7% of patients with DVT were on aspirin at the time of their injury, vs 14% of the matched controls
  • 7% were taking warfarin, and 4% were taking clopidogrel
  • Analysis showed that patients taking aspirin had a significantly decreased chance of DVT after injury
  • On further analysis, it was found that this effect was only significant if some form of heparin was given for prophylaxis as well.

Bottom line: So before you run off and start giving your patients aspirin, think about what this study really said. Patients taking aspirin before their injury and coupled with heparin after their injury have a lower rate of DVT. It gives us no guidance as to whether adding aspirin after the fact, or using aspirin alone, are useful.  And we still don’t know if any of this decreases pulmonary embolism or mortality rates.

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Reference: Aspirin as added prophylaxis for deep vein thrombosis in trauma: a retrospective case-control study. J Trauma 80(4):625-30, 2016.

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