Category Archives: General

The Societal Cost of ED Thoracotomy

ED thoracotomy can be a dramatic, life-saving procedure. From the patient’s perspective, there is only an upside to performing it; without it there is 100% mortality. But to trauma professionals, there is considerable downside risk, including accidental injury, disease transmission and wasted resources. What is the societal risk/cost if ED thoracotomy is performed for weak indications?

The trauma group at Sunnybrook in Toronto looked at this question by retrospectively reviewing 121 patients who underwent the procedure over a 17 year period. They looked at appropriateness, resource use and the safety of the trauma professionals involved. They used the following criteria to determine appropriateness:

  • Blunt trauma with an ED arrival time < 5 minutes
  • Penetrating torso injury with an ED arrival time < 15 minutes with signs of life

Most of the patients were young men (avg age 30) with 78% penetrating injury and 22% blunt. About half (51%) underwent thoracotomy for inappropriate indications. The vast majority of inappropriate cases were for penetrating injuries with long transport times. Only 3 of the inappropriate thoracotomies were for blunt trauma, yet 24 of the “appropriate” procedures were done in the face of blunt trauma.

Resource use in the 63 inappropriate cases included 433 lab tests, 14 plain images and 9 CT scans (!!!?), 6 cases in the OR, 244 units of packed red cells and 41 units of plasma. Accidental needlestick injuries occurred in 6% of the inappropriate thoracotomies. None of the patients receiving inappropriate thoracotomy survived.

Bottom line: ED thoracotomy remains a very dangerous procedure. I’ve previously written about guidelines to determine which ones are appropriate (see link below). In this study, many of the procedures were performed on patients with blunt trauma. That means that the number of inappropriate thoracotomies would have been much higher if today’s standards had been applied. So use the guidelines and save your own health, safety and hospital resources. Is it really worth it if you know the patient will not survive?

Related posts:

Reference: Societal costs of inappropriate emergency department thoracotomy. J Amer Col Surg 214(1):18-26, 2012.

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Does Initial Hematocrit Predict Shock?

Everything you know is WRONG!

The classic textbook teaching is that trauma patients bleed whole blood. And that if you measure the hematocrit (or hemoglobin) on arrival, it will approximate their baseline value because not enough time has passed for equilibration and hemodilution. As I’ve said before, you’ve got to be willing to question dogma!

The trauma group at Ryder in Miami took a good look at this assumption. They drew initial labs on all patients requiring emergency surgery within 4 hours of presentation to the trauma center. They also estimated blood loss in the resuscitation room and OR and compared it to the initial hematocrit. They also compared the hematocrit to the amount of crystalloid and blood transfused in those areas.

Patients with lower initial hematocrits had significantly higher blood loss and fluid and blood replacement during the initial treatment period. Some of this effect may be due to the fact that blood loss was underestimated, or that prehospital IV fluids diluted the patient’s blood counts. However, this study appears sound and should prompt us to question the “facts” we hear every day.

Bottom line: Starling was right! Fluid shifts occur rapidly, and initial hematocrit or hemoglobin may very well reflect the volume status of patients who are bleeding rapidly. If the blood counts you obtain in the resuscitation room come back low, believe it! You must presume your patient is bleeding to death until proven otherwise.

Reference: Initial hematocrit in trauma: A paradigm shift? J Trauma 72(1):54-60, 2012.

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Pet Peeve: “High Index of Suspicion”

How often have you heard this phrase in a talk or seen it in a print article:

“Maintain a high index of suspicion”

What does this mean??? It’s been popping up in our work for at least the last 20 years. And to me, it’s meaningless.

An index is a number, usually mathematically derived in some way. Yet whenever I see or hear this phrase, it doesn’t really apply to anything that is quantifiable. What the author is really referring to is “a high level of suspicion”, not an index. 

This term has become a catch-all to caution the reader or listener to think about a (usually) less common diagnostic possibility. As trauma professionals, we are advised to do this about so many things, it really has become sad and meaningless.

Bottom line: Don’t use this phrase in your presentations or your writing. It’s stupid. And feel free to chide any of your colleagues who do.

Reference: High index of suspicion. Ann Thoracic Surg 64:291-292, 1997.

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Blunt Aortic Injury And New Cars

Car crashes are a significant cause of trauma death worldwide. Aortic injury is the cause of death in somewhere between 16% and 35% of these crashes (in the US). Over the years, automobile safety through engineering improvements has been rising. A recent poster presented at EAST 2012 looked at the effect of these improvements on mortality from aortic injury.

The authors analyzed the National Automotive Sampling System – Crashworthiness Data System database (NASS-CDS) for car model years dating from 1994 to 2010. They included any front seat occupants age 16 or more. Over 70,000 cases were reviewed.

Interesting findings:

  • Overall mortality from aortic injury was 89%
  • 75% of deaths occurred prior to arrival at a hospital
  • Risk for suffering an aortic injury was statistically associated with age >=60, being male, being the front seat passenger, position further back from the steering wheel, and ejection from the vehicle
  • The injury was more likely to occur when speed was >= 60mph, impact occurred with a fixed object, and in SUV vs pickup truck crashes
  • Newer cars protected occupants from aortic injury in side-impact crashes, but the incidence actually increased in frontal-impact crashes

Bottom line: Aortic injury will remain a problem as long as we find ways to move faster than we can walk. Engineers will continue to make cars safer, but the increase in aortic injury in frontal impact in late model cars is puzzling. This phenomenon needs further analysis so that safety can be improved further. Trauma professionals need to keep this injury in mind in any high energy mechanism and order a screening chest CT appropriately.

Related posts:

Reference: Aortic injuries in new vehicles. Ryb et al, University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins. Poster presented at EAST Annual Meeting, January 2012.

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