Category Archives: Philosophy

Do I Have To Call My Trauma Team For Incoming Transfers?

I had a great question sent in by a reader last week:

Some trauma centers receive a number of transfers  from referring hospitals. Much of the time, a portion of the workup has already been done by that hospital. If the patient meets one or more of your trauma activation criteria, do you still need to activate your team when they arrive?

And the answer is: sometimes. But probably not that often.

Think about it. The reason you should be activating your team is that you suspect the patient may have an injury that demands rapid diagnosis and treatment. The purpose of any trauma activation is speed. Rapid evaluation. Fast lab results. Quick access to CT scan or OR. If a significant amount of time has already passed (transported to an outside hospital, worked up for an hour or two, then transported to you), then it is less likely that a trauma activation will benefit the patient.

There are four classes of trauma activation criteria. I’ll touch on each one and the need to activate in a delayed fashion if present, in priority order.

  • Physiologic. If there is a significant disturbance in vital signs while in transit to you (hypotension, tachycardia, respiratory problems, coma), then you must activate. Something else is going on that needs to be corrected as soon as the patient arrives. And remember the two mandatory ACS criteria that fall into this category: respiratory compromise/need for an emergent airway, and patients receiving blood to maintain vital signs. But a patient who needed an airway who is already intubated and no longer compromised does not need to be a trauma activation.
  • Anatomic. Most simple anatomic criteria (e.g. long bone or pelvic fractures) do not need a trauma activation unless the patient is beginning to show signs of physiologic compromise. However, anatomic criteria that require rapid treatment or access to the OR (proximal amputations, mangled or pulseless extremities, spinal cord injury) should be activated.
  • Mechanism. Most of the vague mechanistic criteria (falls, pedestrian struck, vehicle intrusion) do not require trauma activation after transfer to you. But once again, if the mechanism suggests a need for further rapid diagnosis or treatment (penetrating injury to abdomen), then activate.
  • Comorbidities. This includes underlying diseases, extremes of age, and pregnancy. In general, these will not require trauma activation after they arrive.

Bottom line: In many cases, the patient transferred in from another hospital will not need to be a trauma activation, especially if they have been reasonably assessed there. The patient should be rapidly eyeballed by your emergency physicians, and if there is any doubt about their condition, activate then.

However, if little workup was done at the outside hospital (my preference), and the injuries are “fresh” (less than a few hours old), then definitely call your team. 

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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.

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VIP Syndrome In Healthcare (Very Important Person)

Current events are making this classic post even more poignant!

The VIP syndrome occurs in healthcare when a celebrity or other well-connected “important” person receives a level of care that the average person does not. This situation was first documented in a paper published in the 1960s which noted that VIP patients have worse outcomes.

Who is a VIP? It may be a celebrity. A family member. Or even a colleague. Or the President of the United States. VIPs (or their healthcare providers) may have the expectation that they can get special access to care and that the care will be of higher quality than that provided to others. Healthcare providers often grant this extra access, in the form of returned phone calls and preferential access to their clinic or office. The provider tries to provide a higher quality of care by ordering additional tests and involving more consultants. This idea ignores the fact that we already provide the best care we know how, and money or fame can’t buy any better.

Unfortunately, trying to provide better care sets up the VIP for a higher complication rate and a greater chance of death. Healthcare consists of a number of intertwined systems that, in general, have found their most efficient processes and lowest complication rates. Any disturbance in this equilibrium of tests, consultants, or nursing care moves this equilibrium away from its safety point.

Every test has its own set of possible complications. Each consultant feels compelled to add something to the evaluation, which usually means even more tests, and more possible complications. And once too many consultants are involved, there is no “captain of the ship” and care can become fragmented and even more inefficient and dangerous.

How do we avoid the VIP Syndrome? First, explain these facts to the VIP, making sure to impress upon them that requesting or receiving care that is “different” may be dangerous to their health. Explain the same things to allproviders who will be involved in their care. Finally, do not stray from the way you “normally” do things. Order the same tests you usually would, use the same consultants, and take control of all of their recommendations, trying to do things in your usual way. This will provide the VIP with the best care possible, which is actually the same as what everybody else gets.

Reference: “The VIP Syndrome”: A Clinical Study in Hospital Psychiatry. Weintraub, Journal of Mental and Nervious Disease, 138(2): 181-193, 1964.

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The Eleventh Law Of Trauma

Here’s the last one… for now.

If you have followed this blog for any period of time, you are aware of the skepticism I bring to bear when I am reading new material or learning of new ideas. Why is this? Because it is very difficult in this day and age to ascertain the veracity of anything we see, hear, or read.

This is not new compared to, say, a hundred years ago. The media were a bit different, but the underlying issues were the same. There have always been two major factors at play: information overload and the biases built into our human brain operating system.

There is a huge body of new information in every field that is being produced every year. Given the pressures that most researchers are under to publish or perish, a huge number of papers are sent to journals for review. Unfortunately, this leads to a huge number of publications that are of lower quality.

This also contributes to another recognized phenomenon, the half-life of facts. Think about all the things you learned during your training that are no longer believed to be true. Stress causes ulcers. Steroids are good in head injury. There is a definite decay curve for the old facts that occurs as new knowledge is acquired.

So we have a huge amount of potential junk to sort through to figure out what cellular mechanisms are correct or which medications work for a disease. And then we run into our own operating system problems.

All humans have our own innate beliefs that are shaped by experience and all the information we’ve consumed over the years. And we are genetically programmed to do this:
Learn something new  —>  believe it  —>  verify it

And many of us never get to the verify stage because another operating system issue, confirmation bias, takes over. If we learn something that confirms an existing belief, we are much more likely to believe and much less likely to verify. If we learn something that opposes our belief, we still want to believe what we already do and find every flaw in the new data that might refute it.

So here is my eleventh law of trauma:

“Don’t believe anything you learn, especially if it supports what you already believe”

Bottom line: If you read or hear something new, first examine the source. Is it legitimate and reliable? Where did it get the info? Then check out that source. Critically evaluate it, even if it already supports what you believe. Always treat new information, especially if you think it’s right, as an opportunity to learn something new. Sometimes you will find real gems in the things you thought were wrong, and real crap in the things you believed to be right!

It’s time to flip the algorithm to:
Learn something new  —>  verify it  —>  believe it

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The Tenth Law Of Trauma

Several years ago, I ran a series of posts on my Laws of Trauma. I assembled them into  newsletter that contained all nine that existed at the time. If you’d like to download it, just click this link.

I’ve  been struck by another pattern, and I think it’s about time to add the tenth law. Weirdly enough, it was inspired by Dancing With The Stars. You’ll see what I mean.

Here is the Tenth Law of Trauma:

In trauma, it generally takes two to tango

So what does this mean? When dealing with injury, there are a few broad quantitative categories.

  • Single person mechanism. This is one extreme. Common examples would be the elderly fall, a single vehicle car crash, or a self-inflicted stab or gunshot. There is a single “point of failure” that only the individual involved can manage, but for various reasons they do not or cannot. This law does not apply.
  • Multiple person mechanism. This is the other extreme, and thankfully is not seen very often at all. Examples are a tour bus crash, house explosion, or mass casualty event. Once again, those involved usually have little ability to recognize or avoid the imminent event, and the tenth law is null and void.
  • Two person mechanism. This one is very common, and is exemplified by the two car crash, pedestrian struck, or the various flavors of assault. And this is the one that the tenth law applies to.

When two people are involved in an event that leads to traumatic injury, there is usually (but certainly not always) a set of checks and balances that is present. And frequently there is at least one opportunity to avoid the event.

In the case of a two vehicle crash, one driver may have “gone off the deep end” and ignored the usual traffic laws for whatever reason. But the second driver usually has an opportunity to recognize this and change their behavior in order to avoid the situation. However, if they are distracted, impaired, or making assumptions about how other driver behave they can still get into trouble. Thus, it takes two.

What about the pedestrian struck? Likewise, the driver or the pedestrian may have done something nonstandard. Wear dark clothes at night. Glance at their phone while driving. Look at their passenger a bit too long while having a conversation. Once again, the other participant may have an opportunity to see the result of this unexpected behavior and jump or swerve out of the way.

Interpersonal violence it a bit more tricky. Sure, one of the potential participants may get wind that something is up and try to avoid or defuse the situation. But not always. And this situation is heavily charged with emotion and social pressures and is much more difficult to change or avoid.

Bottom line: Many, but certainly not all,  “two-person” mechanisms of injury are avoidable if both of the individuals involved are mentally present and attentive to their surroundings. Look at your own patient population and see how often this applies. You may be surprised!

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