Category Archives: Philosophy

Coronavirus (COVID-19) And Your Trauma Service

In my last post, I made some suggestions on how to modify the trauma activation process to better protect your team members from exposure to the Coronavirus. Today, I’ll discuss some things you can do to reduce the exposure of your in-house team that provides care for patients.

First off, I’m not going to discuss the obvious things like personal protective equipment, or what to do when performing risky procedures such as intubation or extubation. Those have been covered elsewhere and each hospital has adopted its own standards.

I will be discussing more general concepts that help limit team member exposure to possible contamination or infected individuals. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Make sure your hospital conserves the resources it needs to be a trauma center. A certain number of ICUs, operating rooms, and floor beds must be reserved for trauma patients. Your hospital should make contingency plans such that if COVID-19 patients are getting close to taking too many beds or other resources, there is an escape valve so they can be diverted or transferred to other non-trauma hospitals.
  • Save your trauma surgeons for things only they can do. Many hospitals have general surgeons on staff in addition to their trauma/critical care surgeons. Remove the trauma surgeons from emergency general surgery / acute care surgery services and concentrate them on the trauma and critical care services. Have the general surgeons cover the other services, and send all idle trauma surgeons home where it is safer. Rotate them through trauma and critical care on a regular basis. Imagine what would happen if you lose 2 or 3 of your trauma surgeons at the same time, and don’t let it happen to you!
  • Eliminate non-essential meetings and conferences. This includes morbidity and mortality conferences, journal clubs, and all educational conferences. These things have to go on the back burner for now and can be re-instituted once things return to normal.
  • Practice social distancing at essential meetings. Certain gatherings are unavoidable, such as care handoffs (“morning report,” and “afternoon check-out”). Reduce the attendees to only those whose input is critical. If needed, they can gather information from other small groups of providers to prepare for the essential meeting. But no more crowded rooms, please.
  • Don’t congregate with other providers unnecessarily. This means outside your office, in the lounge, and in the lunchroom. The usual social norms need to take a back burner to your own safety and health.
  • Use telephone conferencing as much as possible. You will be surprised at how many of these less-than-essential meetings can be handled virtually, or eliminated. One tip, though: print a copy of the agenda for reference. It seems to be more difficult to follow the flow of the meeting (and take/make notes) if you don’t have something you can visually refer to.
  • Redesign your care team. Do you really need your entire team (APPs, residents, nurses) hanging around all day like they usually do? The reality is that the bulk of the work on any trauma service generally takes place in the morning. The rest of the day is spent waiting for incoming trauma patients. Calculate the optimal number of providers based on your service census. Do the morning work, go on rounds (smaller groups, please), finish any post-rounds chores, then send the extras home. And rotate those providers so that some can spend time at home while the others are in-house.
  • Use residents wisely if you have them. They are part of your care team, too, so be sure to minimize their exposure. The previous tip on redesigning the care team applies to them, too. And frequently, they rotate through several hospitals, many of which are not doing elective surgery. So they may not have a lot to do. Work with the residency program director to see if you can temporarily add them to the trauma center coverage pool. This allows you to keep a larger number of residents at home while maintaining a reasonable number for your care team.

In my next post, I’ll cover changes you should consider in your Massive Transfusion Protocol.

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) And Your Trauma Team

We are in the midst of Coronavirus mania! Every hospital in the country is scrambling to figure out what to do to meet the rapidly increasing demand for screening and access to care that has been so unexpectedly thrust upon us.

Trauma professionals will be profoundly affected as well. We are a scarce resource in the first place, and I’m speaking of those in all disciplines from prehospital through rehab. And since the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be so widespread and our testing abilities so limited, it is a challenge to protect ourselves from contracting it. Given how scarce we are, losing even a few to self-imposed quarantine (or worse) would be very disruptive to the health care of the trauma patients we normally take care of.

The key is to try to limit exposure to the Coronavirus as much as possible. Hospitals are now very diligent about screening patients and their families as they enter the hospital. However, the trauma activation patient is a potential wild card.

What can be done to protect the trauma professionals assembling to take care of a trauma activation patient, who should probably be considered infected until proven otherwise? The most obvious answer is to escalate the normal personal protective measures to include the same garb worn for treating patients with known or suspected infection. This includes N95 masks and full face shields.

Unfortunately, this is not practical due to the extreme shortages of this equipment. But what we can do is optimize our trauma team and provide a more informed and graduated response.

Here are my recommendations:

  • Drastically reduce overtriage. Most busy trauma centers have overtriage rates (trauma activation for patients with low acuity and/or do not meet activation criteria) around 50%, and sometimes higher. Frequently, these are patients who did not really need to be met by the full trauma team. How can you do this?
    • Eliminate superfluous activation criteria; keep only your physiologic and anatomic ones. These generally correlate with Steps 1 and 2 of the CDC triage criteria for transfer to a trauma center used by your EMS providers. Eliminate all mechanism of injury criteria except for penetrating injury. This includes falls, pedestrian struck, vehicle intrusions, etc. Then eliminate anything else that doesn’t fall into these categories. You are essentially converting to a bare bones single-tier activation system.
    • Eliminate the ability of prehospital providers to call a field activation on anything other than your activation criteria (or Step 1 and Step 2 CDC criteria. This may be difficult or confusing if they service several centers that normally have different criteria. The person taking the radio/phone call and initiating the team page should not activate the team unless one of the physiologic or anatomic criteria are specifically mentioned. All other transports should be met by an emergency physician who will then use their clinical judgement to activate the full team.
  • Eliminate superfluous trauma team members. This includes students, shadowing providers, observers, extra residents, and anyone else who does not have an essential role in the room.
  • Call the entire team, but only use who you need. Determine the makeup of your core team. One physician, two nurses, a tech, and a scribe? This will vary by center. They should dawn protective gear that is as effective (and available) as possible. (This may not be face shields and N95 masks if you are a busy center and don’t have many in stock.) The others should remain available outside the room and be called in only if necessary (pharmacist, respiratory therapy, additional physicians or APPs, etc). All other normal team personnel can then be dismissed and disperse.
  • Release active team members who are no longer needed. As the resuscitation winds down and team members complete their tasks, send them away.
  • Reduce the post-resuscitation transport team to the minimum necessary. This will depend on the patient’s condition. Are they stable, awake, and alert? Or intubated and traveling with a rapid infuser? Assign personnel appropriately.

Bottom line: Things have changed for a while and the old rules may not completely apply. Critically look at everything you do to see if it is still reasonable and necessary. Always keep the safety of your patient at heart. But don’t lose sight of the fact that you won’t be able to help anyone in the future if you are quarantined at home.

This crisis will only last for a few months, but it should cause us to question business as usual. We may discover that some of what we do is not a necessary as we thought!

I’m very interested in what others are doing with their resuscitation teams and trauma services to increase safety. Please share on Twitter, or feel free to email me.

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Guidelines vs Protocols / Evidence-Based vs Evidence Informed

In my last two posts, I reviewed the importance of having practice guidelines at your trauma center and gave some pointers on how to develop them. Today I’ll give you my take on the nomenclature and the evidence they are based on.

There are lots of names given to what we have come to know as clinical practice guidelines. You’ve heard many of them. Guidelines. Pathways. Protocols. What’s the difference?

Unfortunately, there are no real and solid definitions of these terms when used for clinical care. So here is my take on them:

  • Guideline. Guidelines are general principles that guide management. These are best illustrated by the practice guidelines published annually by the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma (EAST). Each EAST guideline tackles a specific clinical problem, like DVT or blunt cardiac injury. It presents a series of clinical questions regarding the topic, such as “which is better, unfractionated heparin or low molecular weight heparin.” The pertinent literature is reviewed and its overall quality is judged. Then the questions are answered and the confidence in that answer is given, based on the strength of the research (strongly recommended vs recommended vs conditionally recommended, etc.). So in reading the guideline you may see that the use of low molecular weight heparin is recommended over unfractionated heparin in certain circumstances.
  • Protocol. A protocol is a description of very specific behaviors that are followed in certain situations. The behaviors can be described either in a list format (such as that followed in some type of formal ceremony) or in a flow diagram which is best used in clinical care.
  • Pathway. In my mind, this falls somewhere between the two extremes of guideline and protocol. It is more specific than a guideline, but less so than a protocol.

In clinical care, specifics are important. Without specificity, there is still much opportunity for variation in care, which defeats the purpose. The EAST guideline described above paints some broad strokes about clinical care, but there are huge gaps between the questions answered that need answers to provide actual patient care.

So although we (and I) tend to call these documents clinical practice guidelines, they are really clinical care protocols. They should be written in such a way that care can be provided in an “if this, then that” manner. If any kind of hedging language is used, like the word “consider”, the document is only a guideline. And this fact becomes extremely important when your trauma PI program tries to monitor for compliance. It is immediately obvious when someone deviates from the protocol, while a savvy clinician can always claim that they “considered” the desired course of action before they chose their own way using a guideline.

Now, what about evidence-based guidelines? Isn’t that what we all strive for? First of all, they’re not guidelines, remember. They are protocols. And second, there is no area of medicine where the research is so detailed that you know what to do down to specific blood draw times, vital sign monitoring, or operative techniques. There is still plenty of room for debate even in something as simple as chest tube removal. Water seal or not? How long until you get a followup x-ray? The possibilities never end.

So it’s basically impossible to develop anything that is completely evidence-based. We always have to take the best evidence and supplement it with clinical experience and judgement. The latter is what we use to fill in all the blanks in guidelines. I’ve seen too many trauma centers delay writing up their protocols because they are waiting for a better paper to be published on this or that. Good luck! It’s not coming any time soon!

Bottom line: Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that we’ve got the nomenclature all wrong. What we really want are evidence-informed protocols, not evidence-based guidelines!

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Serial Lab Testing: Worthwhile or Worthless?: Final Answer

In my last two posts, I detailed the serum sodium measurements in a hypothetical patient two ways. The first was a listing of daily values, and the second provided values obtained every six hours or so. It also showed the sodium supplementation that was ordered based on those values. (I’ve included the table at the bottom of this post)

What did you think? Did the extra determinations help you decide what, if any, treatment was needed? Did the therapies ordered help?

Here are my thoughts:

  • Overall, there was not a huge or rapid decline in sodium values. Given the initial values, I would not have started a saline infusion on day 1, just watched a few daily values and the patients physical exam. The infusion only provided 3gm of salt per day, and the serum Na remained fairly stable for the first 3 days.
  • There was a significant amount of intra-day variation seen on the six hour table. You need to know the normal “within-person ” variation for any lab test you order. If two assays on specimens drawn at the same time can vary by 5%, you must factor this in to your decision making. If the value is 3% lower than the previous draw, the difference could represent normal variation. Obtaining more frequent assays exacerbates the amount of variation you see and my be confusing.
  • From day 5 to 6, the sodium appeared to be rising without any salt supplementation! But then a higher dose was given, and one of the intra-day values dropped to 124. What’s up with that? More variation?!
  • Is the morbidity of frequent blood draws worth it if there is no clinical change in the patient’s exam? What morbidity, you ask? Sleep disturbances, with all the cascading problems like delirium, sundowning, administration of additional meds to compensate, and on and on. Unnecessary medication or interventions. Plus it does not promote patient or family satisfaction at all.

Bottom line: Unless your patient has a clinical problem that may deteriorate rapidly, serial lab determinations are probably not of much value. The example patient was many days out from a TBI with some extra-axial blood. So yes, he could develop hyponatremia, but it would have probably surfaced earlier. Know your within-person  variability, which for sodium is roughly +2 meq. Is your new value within that limit? Then it is statistically the same as the first value unless you see a trend over several measurements. And as always, if you note a marked change in just one value, repeat it immediately before beginning any more drastic interventions.

In general, think twice before ordering serial lab tests. Can the result actually make a significant move during that period of time? Is the margin of error for the test greater than that variability? Are you truly worried about a number that would have a real clinical impact? Always ask yourself these questions before ordering an expensive and uncomfortable series of tests!

Reference: Biological variation of laboratory analytes based on the 1999-2002 national health and nutrition examination survey. Natl Health Statistic Reports 21:March 1, 2010.

Day/Time Na Treatment NaCl per day
Day 1 18:30 131
Day 1 22:54 132 0.9% NS @ 125/hr 3G
Day 2 05:59 133 continues 3G
Day 2 12:19 129 continues
Day 2 17:50 129 continues
Day 3 07:18 127 continues
Day 3 12:09 127 continues
Day 3 17:58 126 continues
Day 3 23:53 126 continues
Day 4 07:45 125 continues
Day 4 11:38 122 2% NS @ 25/hr 6G
Day 4 15:25 125 continues
Day 4 19:31 125 continues
Day 5 00:06 122 continues 6G
Day 5 04:04 126 continues
Day 5 08:01 122 continues
Day 5 11:50 132 stop
Day 5 16:14 126
Day 5 19:26 127
Day 6 00:20 129 9.2G
Day 6 04:42 127 2% NS @ 40/hr
Day 6 08:30 124 continues
Day 6 12:29 127 stop
Day 6 16:16 127 Salt tabs 2G tid
Day 6 20:28 132 continues
Day 7 05:22 134 Salt tabs 2G qid 8G
Day 7 12:33 135 continues
Day 8 07:02 131 stop None
Day 8 13:33 136
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