Category Archives: General

Lack of Insurance in Trauma Patients Increases Mortality

A recent research article from the LAC+USC Level I trauma center in Los Angeles looked at the impact of insurance vs no insurance on outcomes after trauma. They reviewed 8 years of admissions starting in 1998. The outcomes analyzed included mortality, operative procedures, radiographic studies, and length of stay. Nearly 30,000 admission records were reviewed.

Some interesting findings:

  • Insured patients were generally older, victims of blunt trauma, and were significantly more severely injured
  • More procedures and radiographic studies were performed in the insured group (may be due to severity of injury)
  • ICU length of stay was longer in the insured patients (may be due to severity of injury)
  • Mortality was increased in uninsured patients. This difference was most pronounced in African American and Hispanic patients

The relationship between insurance status and access to healthcare has been investigated by numerous groups, but generally in the context of access to health resources. The major effect of lacking insurance in those studies is decreased access and subsequently poorer general health. 

The current study looked at a new population: trauma patients at an urban, county-based Level I trauma center that provides equal access to care regardless of payor status. In theory, insurance status has no bearing on access in these patients. The most notable finding was that uninsured patients had a significantly higher mortality despite younger age and lower injury severity. This was most pronounced in African American and Hispanic patients. 

The reasons for these disparities is unclear. Perhaps lack of access to regular healthcare resulted in nutritional problems or disorders due to alcohol or drug use. There may also be a relationship to an increased involvement in penetrating trauma. 

Overall, the relationship between insurance status and outcome after trauma is complex. Access to basic healthcare coverage may affect chronic health status and the ability to survive serious injury. It may also be an indicator of other factors that have not yet been determined. It certainly provides food for thought as the country increases access to basic healthcare for people who have not previously been able to obtain it.

Reference: J Trauma 68(1):211-216, 2010.

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Trauma 20 Years Ago: Colon Injury

Through the 1970’s and 80’s, a colon injury was automatically managed by repair/resection coupled with a diverting colostomy. This technique became commonplace due to bad experiences with repair attempts during earlier decades.

During the late 70’s, a few trauma centers began dabbling in primary repair. At Wayne State University in Detroit, John Kirkpatrick had popularized an exteriorization technique. This involved repairing the colon and bringing the area of repair to the outside of the body. The area was watched for several days and if no breakdown was noted, it could be dropped back into the abdomen with a relatively minor procedure. 

After the success of exteriorization, some of the surgeons at Receiving began repairing colon injuries and leaving them in the abdomen. They retrospectively looked at their experience with this radical idea from 1980 to 1987. Injuries were predominantly penetrating. From 1980 to 1983, 29% of patients were managed in this way. During the final years, the use of this technique increased to 56%. 

Interestingly, Injury Severity Score in patients who did not get colostomy was higher, but the number of complications (leaks, intra-abdominal abscesses) was lower! Colostomy patients had 15 abscesses, while those without colostomy had 1 leak and only 5 abscesses.

This paper represents one of the first reports on colon injury management without colostomy, and set the stage for additional trials. It has led to the nearly routine use of this technique in current times.

Reference: Management of the Injured Colon: Evolving Practice at an Urban Trauma Center. Levison, Thomas, Wiencek and Wilson. J Trauma 30(3): 247-253, 1980.

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The Right Way to Treat Tension Pneumothorax

Tension pneumothorax is an uncommon but potentially lethal manifestation of chest injury. An injury to the lung occurs that creates a one-way valve effect, allowing a small amount of air to escape with every breath. Eventually the volume becomes so large as to cause the lung and mediastinum to push toward the other side, with profound hypotension and cardiovascular collapse.

The classic clinical findings are:

  • Hypotension
  • Decreased or absent breath sounds on the affected side
  • Hyperresonance to percussion
  • Shift of the trachea away from the affected side
  • Distended neck veins

You should never diagnose a tension pneumothorax with a chest xray or CT scan, because the diagnosis is a clinical one and the patient may die while these procedures are carried out. Having said that, here’s one:

Tension Pneumothorax

The arrow points to the completely collapsed lung. Note the trachea bowing to the right. 

As soon as the diagnosis is made, the right thing to do is to “needle the chest.” A large bore angiocath should be placed in the second intercostal space, mid-clavicular line, sliding right over the top of the third rib. The needle should then be removed, leaving the catheter.

The traditional large bore needle is 14 gauge, but they tend to be short and flimsy. They may not penetrate the pleura in an obese patient, and will probably kink off rapidly. Order the largest, longest angiocath possible and stock them in your trauma resuscitation rooms.


The top catheter in this photo is a 14 gauge 1.25 inch model. The bottom (preferred at Regions) is a 10 gauge 3 inch unit. Big difference! And if the patient is extremely obese, make a 1 cm cut in the skin and sink the hub deep to the skin for extra distance.

The final tip to treating a tension pneumothorax is that a chest tube must be placed immediately after inserting the needle. If the patient is on a ventilator, the positive pressure will slowly expand the lung. But if they are breathing spontaneously, the needle will change the tension pneumothorax into a simple open pneumothorax. Patients with other cardiovascular problems will not tolerate this for long and may need to be intubated if you dawdle.

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Management of CSF Otorrhea/Rhinorrhea

The management of CSF leaks after trauma remains somewhat controversial. The literature is sparse, and generally consists of observational studies. However, some general guidelines are supported by large numbers of retrospectively reviewed patients.

  • Ensure that the patient actually has a CSF leak. In most patients, this is obvious because they have clear fluid leaking from ear or nose that was not present preinjury. Here are the options when the diagnosis is less obvious (i.e. serosanguinous drainage):
    • High resolution images of the temporal bones and skull base. If an obvious breach is noted, especially if fluid is seen in the adjacent sinuses, then a CSF leak is extremely likely.
    • Glucose testing. CSF glucose is low compared to serum glucose. 
    • Beta 2 transferrin assay. This marker is very specific to CSF. However, the test is expensive and results may take several days to a few weeks to receive. Most leaks will have closed before the results are available, making this a poor test.
  • Place the patient at bed rest with the head elevated. The basic concept is to decrease intracranial pressure, which in turn should decrease the rate of leakage. This same technique is used for management of mild ICP increases after head injury.
  • Consider prophylactic antibiotics carefully. The clinician must balance the likelihood of meningitis with the possibility of selecting resistant bacteria. If the likelihood of contamination is low and the patient is immunocompetent, antibiotics may not be needed.
  • Ear drops are probably not necessary. They may confuse the picture when gauging resolution of the CSF leak.
  • Wait. Most tramatic leaks will close spontaneously within 7-10 days. If it does not, a neurosurgeon or ENT surgeon should be consulted to consider surgical closure.


  1. Brodie HA, Thompson TC. Management of complications from 820 temporal bone fractures. Am J Otol, 1997;18:188-197.
  2. Brodie HA. Prophylactic antibiotics for posttraumatic cerebrospinal fluid fistulas. Arch Otolaryngol Head, Neck Surg. 123:749-752.
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