Category Archives: Philosophy

Best Of: VIP Syndrome In Healthcare (Very Important Person)

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. 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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Geriatric Week 2: Tips and Thoughts On Geriatric Trauma

I’ve had several requests for a piece on geriatric trauma. We know that elderly patients (officially age > 55) have worse outcomes for the same degree of injury. And as they get older, mortality rises rapidly. Here are some practical tips for trauma professionals.

  • For EMS: As I mentioned yesterday, heed the CDC trauma triage guidelines. Older patients have better outcomes at trauma centers, so take advantage of it.
  • In the ED: Ask immediately about anticoagulation. This can cause life threatening situations, especially in the face of intracranial hemorrhage. If your patient is taking anything that interferes with clotting, treat them like a STEMI or stroke patient. Time is of the essence. Draw coags and get rapid access to the CT scanner. Refer to the guidelines I previously published on reversing the usual culprits.
  • Most elderly patients with any degree of head trauma need a head CT. They can hide bleeding well, until it’s too late to save them.
  • Once admitted, treat them very carefully. Even minor errors (too much fluid, unneeded IV contrast) can cause significant complications.
  • Use as little narcotic as possible. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen work great. Lidocaine patches may be helpful in may cases. Steer away from narcotics and muscle relaxants as much as possible to avoid altering mental status.
  • Watch sleep patterns. Sleeping meds are bad, but reducing interruptions in the middle of the night is good (do they really need vital signs taken at 2AM?).
  • Look at the patient’s baseline status. Are they a spry 90 year old, or a demented 70 year old who falls all the time? Have realistic expectations and communicate them with the family if major procedures or intubation are considered. Sure, we have the technology to fix many things, but at what cost to the patient? The family needs to understand the real likelihood of ICU, tracheostomy, and prolonged or permanent debilitation. Don’t make them as miserable as you can make the patient.
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Geriatric Week 1: How We Take Care Of Our Elders

Time for some philosophy again. A paper in Neurology released ahead of print confirms something I’m seeing more and more often. Specifically, hospitals can be bad for you, particularly if you are elderly.

The trauma population that we all see is aging with the overall population. Being older predisposes one to injuries that are more likely to require hospitalization. And unfortunately, being in the hospital can have adverse effects. I’m not just talking about the usual culprits such as medical errors or exposure to resistant bacteria.

The Chicago Health and Aging Project has been tracking a group of elders as they age, and has been making a number of interesting observations. Most recently, they have released information on a correlation between cognitive decline and hospitalization. They tracked nearly 1900 people, of whom 1335 ending up in the hospital for one reason or another (not just trauma). They found that there is a baseline rate of global cognitive decline with age (surprise!). Unfortunately, this rate of decline accelerated 2.4 times in the hospitalized group. Episodic memory scores declined 3.3 times faster, and executive function declined 1.7 times faster. And declines tended to be more pronounced in patients who had more severe illness, longer hospital stay, or advanced age.

There are some issues with the study. It is large, but it is a correlation study nonetheless. Are the effects due to something that happens in the hospital, or are they caused by something not evaluated by the study? It’s also not clear to me whether the declines noted are clinically significant in the daily lives of the people studied, or are just a number on some scale.

Bottom line: Some of the “benign” things that we do to patients in the hospital can have a big impact on their functional outcome. Always remember that they are more fragile than the young trauma patients we take care of. That extra fluid bolus, or dose of morphine, exposure to IV contrast, or noisy neighbor that keeps them from sleeping can make a real difference in how they do. Always consider that everything you do to them might kill them. Then seriously reconsider whether you really, really need to order it at all.

Reference: Cognitive decline after hospitalization in a community population of older persons. Neurology, 78(13):950-956, 2012.

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Another Failure Of Shotgun Style Diagnostic Testing: The Trauma Incidentaloma

When our patients present with a problem, there is a time honored and well-defined sequence to help us come to a final diagnosis.

  • Take a detailed history
  • Examine the patient
  • Order pertinent diagnostic tests, if indicated
  • Then think about it a while

The first two items are a chip shot, and the trauma professional can gain a lot of information by spending a relatively short period of time doing these. And many times the diagnosis can be made without any further action.

However, diagnostic testing of all kinds has become so prevalent and easy to obtain that we rely on it a bit too much. And sometimes, we order it up in lieu of a thorough history and exam. If the clinician skimps on those steps, it’s much more difficult to narrow the list of differential diagnoses to a manageable number.

So what happens then? They use diagnostic tests as a crutch. Instead of being able to select a few focused tests to answer the questions, they essentially put an order sheet on the wall, fire off a shotgun, and order everything that’s been hit by the pellets.

Lots of tests, so they will definitely find the answer, right? Nope! There are two major problems here. First, the so-called signal to noise ratio is very low. There are so many results, that it is easy to overlook a pertinent positive among all the negatives.

But more significantly, there is always the possibility that there will be more than one positive. One of them might actually be the answer you were seeking. But what about the others? There are the trauma incidentalomas. Some may be truly positive, but there is always the possibility of a false positive. These are the most treacherous, because many trauma professionals then feel obligated to “do something about it.”

As we have found from multiple screening tests like PSA, PAP smear, and mammography, a significant number of patients may be harmed trying to further investigate what turns out to be nothing at all (artifact), or something completely benign. This includes not only harm from complications or unnecessary procedures, but months of anxiety the patient may suffer while the clinicians figure out what that thing inside them really is.

There are only a few studies on trauma incidentalomas available. One reviewed a series of almost 600 head CT scans in patients with TBI and found unexpected findings on 85%. About 90% were obviously benign. Unfortunately, it was not possible to follow these patients to find out how many of the remaining lesions turned out to be benign as well. But I would wager that most did.

Bottom line: I shouldn’t even have to say this, but do a good history and physical exam! If you need diagnostic studies, order only the one(s) that have the potential to make your final diagnosis. Don’t shotgun it. One very helpful tool is a well-designed practice guideline for commonly encountered clinical scenarios. This will limit the number of “other” findings you have to deal with. And finally, did I say to do a good history and physical exam?

Related posts:

Reference: Incidental cranial CT findings in head injury patients in a Nigerian tertiary hospital. J Emerg Trauma Shock 8(2):77-82, 2015.

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Why Is NPO The Default Diet For Trauma Patients?

I’ve watched it happen for years. A trauma patient is admitted with a small subarachnoid hemorrhage in the evening. The residents put in all the “usual” orders and tuck them away for the night. I am the rounder the next day, and when I saunter into the patient’s room, this is what I find:

They were made NPO. And this isn’t just an issue for patients with a small head bleed. A grade II spleen. An orbital fracture. Cervical spine injury. The list goes on.

What do these injuries have to do with your GI tract?

Here are some pointers on writing the correct diet orders on your trauma patients:

  • Is there a plan to take them to the operating room within the next 8 hours or so? If not, let them eat. If you are not sure, contact the responsible service and ask. Once you have confirmed their OR status, write the appropriate order.
  • Have they just come out of the operating room from a laparotomy? Then yes, they will have an ileus and should be NPO.
  • Are they being admitted to the ICU? If their condition is tenuous enough that they need ICU level monitoring, then they actually do belong to that small group of patients that should be kept NPO.

But here’s the biggest offender. Most trauma professionals don’t think this one through, and reflexively write for the starvation diet.

  • Do they have a condition that will likely require an emergent operation in the very near future? This one is a judgment call. But how often have you seen a patient with subarachnoid hemorrhage have an emergent craniotomy? How often do low grade solid organ injuries fail if they’ve always had stable vital signs? Or even high grade injuries? The answer is, not often at all! So let them eat!

Bottom line: Unless your patient is known to be heading to the OR soon, or just had a laparotomy, the default trauma diet should be a regular diet! 

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