Tag Archives: elderly

Syncope Workup in Trauma Patients – Updated With CPG

Syncope accounts for 1-2% of all ED visits, and is a factor in some patients with blunt trauma, especially the elderly. If syncope is suspected, a “syncope workup” is frequently ordered. Just what this consists of is poorly defined. Even less understood is how useful the syncope workup really is.

Researchers at Yale retrospectively looked at their experience doing syncope workups in trauma patients. They were interested in seeing what was typically ordered, if it was clinically useful, and if it impacted length of stay.

A total of 14% of trauma patients had syncope as a possible contributor to their injury. The investigators found that the following tests were typically ordered in these patients:

  • Carotid ultrasound (96%)
  • 2D Echo (96%)
  • Cardiac enzymes (81%)
  • Cardiology consult (23%)
  • Neurology consult (11%)
  • EEG (7%)
  • MRI (6%)

Most of this testing was normal. About 3% of cardiac enzymes were abnormal, as were 5% of carotid imaging and 4% of echocardiograms.

Important! Of the patients who underwent an intervention after workup, 69% could have been identified based on history, physical exam, or EKG and did not depend on any of the other diagnostic tests.

Is it possible to determine a subset of this population that may show a higher yield for this screening? Surgeons at Temple University in Philadelphia found that there was little utility in using carotid duplex studies. They did note that patients with a history of heart disease were more likely to have an abnormal EKG, and that an abnormal EKG predicted an abnormal echo. Overall, only patients with a history of significant cardiac comorbidity, older age, and higher ISS had findings requiring intervention.

Bottom line: Don’t just reflexively order a syncope workup when there is a question of this problem. Think about it first, because the majority of these studies are nonproductive. They are not needed routinely in trauma patients with “syncope” as a contributing factor.  Obtain a good cardiac history, and if indicated, order an EKG and go from there. See the practice guideline proposed by the Temple group below. And be sure to include the patients primary doctor in the loop!


  1. Routine or protocol evaluation of trauma patients with suspected syncope is unnecessary. J Trauma 70(2):428-432, 2011.
  2. Syncope workup: Greater yield in select trauma population. Intl J Surg, accepted for publication June 27, 2017.


Appropriateness Of Nonsurgical Admissions

U.S. Trauma Centers that are verified by the American College of Surgeons must track the rate of trauma admissions to nonsurgical services. This is particularly important if the percentage of nonsurgical admissions exceeds 10% of their total admissions. The center’s performance improvement processes can then determine if the admission was appropriate and whether or not the trauma service should request a consult or transfer.

But how should we judge the appropriateness of nonsurgical admissions? There is tremendous variability in presenting mechanism and patient comorbidities. And the number of patients with some need for nonsurgical attention continues to grow with the rapidly increasing number of elderly falls.

The group at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore NY initially tracked all nonsurgical admissions and evaluated each individually at their community Level II trauma center. They then created and implemented a scoring system in order to develop a set of objective criteria that would predict patients better served with trauma consultation or admission.

The scoring tool was based on some of the information in the Optimal Resource Document, but was still somewhat arbitrary. The authors added criteria that reflected their own institutional philosophy of care. They explain their rationale clearly in the manuscript. Here is the final tool:

Criteria Points
Age > 65 years 1
3 or more comorbidities 1
ISS < 10 1
Ground level fall 1
No ICU admission 1
No need for surgical intervention 1
No blood products given 1

The maximum number of points possible is 7, with higher scores suggesting appropriateness for nonsurgical admission. The authors chose scores of 3 and 4 as the “grey zone” where further investigation was necessary to determine if a medical admission was proper. Lower numbers required trauma service admission, and higher ones did not.

The authors then examined changes in the percent of nonsurgical admissions after implementation, as well as mortality, morbidity, and hospital length of stay.

Here are the factoids:

  • Nonsurgical admission rates had historically been greater than 10% and had peaked at 28% at the time of scoring system implementation
  • After implementation, the nonsurgical admission rate dropped to under 10 %, where it remained for most of the time. There were a few spikes into the 14-17% range.
  • Mortality was insignificantly higher on the trauma service (2.1% vs 1.2%) as were complications (6.1% vs 5.5%)
  • Length of stay was statistically significantly longer on nonsurgical services (6.2 VS 5.1 days)

Bottom line: Centers that admit a large number of elderly falls patients may benefit from adopting this quick screening tool to determine the appropriate service. Ideally, all trauma patients would be admitted to the trauma service, but this is not feasible from a personnel and resource standpoint. If the number of potential nonsurgical admissions is high, applying a scoring system like this can help streamline the decision regarding admitting service.

Patients with very low scores (1-2) are obviously only appropriate for a trauma service admission. Likewise, those with very high scores (5-7) could easily and appropriately be managed on a hospital medicine service. The in-betweeners need more scrutiny by trauma program PI personnel to determine which service to admit to. 

Most importantly, don’t feel compelled to use this exact scoring system or threshold. Every hospital has different resources and a unique patient population. Add or remove criteria that you believe are appropriate. Adjust the threshold for added scrutiny as you see fit. Doing so will help keep your trauma PI workflow manageable.

Reference: Nonsurgical admissions with traumatic injury: medical patients are trauma patients, too. J Trauma Nursing 25(3):192-195, 2018.

Detecting Rib Fractures In The Elderly

It’s well known that our elders do less well than younger folks after injury. The number of complications is higher, there tends to be more loss of independence during recovery, and mortality is increased. This is not only true of high energy trauma like car crashes, but also much lower energy events such as a fall from standing.

Rib fractures are common after falls in the elderly and contribute to significant morbidity if not treated adequately. Traditionally, they are identified through a combination of physical exam and chest x-ray. Unfortunately, only half of rib fractures are visible on x-ray. It falls to the physical exam to detect the rest.

A group at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston explored the utility of using chest CT in an attempt to determine if this would result in more appropriate and cost-efficient care in the elderly. They performed a retrospective study of 3 years of their own data on patients aged 65 or more presenting after a mechanical fall and receiving a rib fracture diagnosis. Imaging was ordered at the discretion of the physician. A total of 330 patients were elderly, fell, and had both chest x-ray and chest CT obtained. This was a very elderly group, with a mean age of 84 years!

Here are the factoids:

  • Rib fractures were seen on chest x-ray in 40 patients (12%) and on CT in an additional 56 ; 234 patients had no fractures on either
  • When fractures were seen on both studies, CT identified a median of 2 more fractures than chest x-ray
  • Patients with fractures not seen on chest x-ray were admitted significantly more often than those without fractures (91% vs 78%)
  • Mortality, admission to ICU, ICU length of stay, and hospital length of stay were not different if fractures were seen only on CT
  • CT scan identified new issues or clarified diagnoses suggested by chest x-ray in 14 cases, including one malignancy
  • Rib detail images were obtained in 13 patients and proved to be better than chest x-ray, but not quite as good as CT scan

Conclusion: use of CT for rib fracture diagnosis resulted in a few more admissions, but no change in hospital resource utilization, complications, or mortality.

Bottom line: Hmm…, read the paper closely. The authors conclude that more patients with CT-only identified rib fractures are admitted. But compared to what? Unfortunately, patients without rib fractures on CT. What about comparing to patients who had fractures seen on chest x-ray too? If that number is the same, then of what additional use is CT? Identifying a few incidentalomas?

Given that there is no change in the usual outcome measures listed here, it doesn’t seem like there is any additional benefit to adding CT. And I can see a lot of downsides: cost, radiation, and possible exposure to IV contrast. In my mind, there is still nothing that beats a good physical exam and a chest x-ray. Skip the CT scan. And don’t even think about ordering rib detail images! That’s so 1990s. And even if no rib fractures are seen on imaging, physical exam is the prime determinant for admitting your patient for aggressive pain management and pulmonary toilet.

Reference: Chest CT imaging utility for radiographically occult rib fractures in elderly fall-injured patients. J Trauma ePub ahead of print, Jan 23, 2019.

EAST 2019 #7: Falls Screening In The Elderly

Falls in our elderly population are one of the largest issues facing trauma centers in the US, if not world-wide. The sheer numbers, along with the significant morbidity and mortality experienced by this group is mind boggling. ACS verified trauma centers are encouraged to have geriatric specific practice guidelines to assist in optimal care of these patients, and falls prevention programs are common among them.

The Centers for Disease Control is promoting a program called the Stopping Elderly Accidents, Deaths, and Injuries (STEADI) initiative. They provide a suite of tools and resources, and screening begins with a 12 point questionnaire (see links). This tool obviously takes a bit of time to administer, and time is precious. The research group at
Baystate Medical Center in Massachusetts postulated that giving the full screen may be a bit cumbersome.

They explored a possible simplification to the 12-point STEADI screen, reducing it to only 3 of the questions. They sought to determine whether this easier and more convenient screen might be as accurate as the full STEADI screen. They evaluated a group of 60 elderly patients use the abbreviated tool, and those who scored high were referred to a physical therapy for further assessment and intervention. The primary outcome was performance improvement on the Timed Up and Go test (TUG), a measure of the patient’s ability to get up from a chair, walk a fixed distance and back, then sit down again. Normal performance is < 12 seconds.

Here are the factoids:

  • The median age of the 60 study patients who were considered high risk was 77
  • Median TUG before interventions was 16 seconds
  • After physical therapy intervention, the time decreased significantly to 12.3 seconds

The authors concluded that the abbreviated screen could be used to effectively identify elderly patients at risk for falls.

Here are some questions for the authors and presenter to consider in advance to help them prepare for audience questions:

  • Show the audience the full STEADI questionnaire, and highlight the three questions used in your study. This was not specified in the abstract. Did the patients have to score positive on all three questions to qualify for intervention?
  • How much time difference is there in answering the full 12-question survey vs the abbreviated 3 question one? The full survey looks pretty simple to me.
  • Did you also administer the full screen to see the correlation with your subset of three questions? This could provide interesting information that could validate the brief screen. How many more receiving the full screen would have qualified for the intervention?
  • What exactly were the interventions that the therapists provided in PT? Were they the same for each patient? How do you think they improved the TUG score?
  • Did all 60 patients complete the program? Or were more enrolled and only 60 qualified for intervention?
  • Is the TUG score difference clinically significant? You showed statistical significance, but are these patients really less likely to fall? Did you collect any data of falls after completion of the intervention?

This is a timely and pertinent study. I look forward to hearing the nitty gritty at the conference.


  • The STEADI algorithm
  • The 12 point STEADI screen

Reference: Fall prevention initiative: A fall screening pilot study in the ambulatory setting. EAST 2019 Paper #21.

Pan Scanning for Elderly Falls?

The last abstract for the Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons that I will review deals with doing a so-called “pan-scan” for ground level falls. Apparently, patients at this center have been pan-scanned for years, and they wanted to determine if it was appropriate.

This was a retrospective trauma registry review of 9 years worth of ground level falls. Patients were divided into young (18-54 years) and old (55+ years) groups. They were included in the study if they received a pan-scan.

Here are the factoids:

  • Hospital admission rates (95%) and ICU admission rates (48%) were the same for young and old
  • ISS was a little higher in the older group (9 vs 12)
  • Here are the incidence and type of injuries detected:
Young (n=328) Old (n=257)
TBI 35% 40%
C-spine 2% 2%
Blunt Cereb-vasc inj * 20% 31%
Pneumothorax 14% 15%
Abdominal injury 4% 2%
Mortality * 3% 11%

 * = statistically significant

Bottom line: There is an ongoing argument, still, regarding pan-scan vs selective scanning. The pan-scanners argue that the increased risk (much of which is delayed or intangible) is worth the extra information. This study shows that the authors did not find much difference in injury diagnosis in young vs elderly patients, with the exception of blunt cerebrovascular injury.

Most elderly patients who fall sustain injuries to the head, spine (all of it), extremities and hips. The torso is largely spared, with the exception of ribs. In my opinion, chest CT is only for identification of aortic injury, which just can’t happen from falling over. Or even down stairs. And solid organ injury is also rare in this group.

Although the future risk from radiation in an elderly patient is probably low, the risk from the IV contrast needed to see the aorta or solid organs is significant in this group. And keep in mind the dangers of screening for a low probability diagnosis. You may find something that prompts invasive and potentially more dangerous investigations of something that may never have caused a problem!

I recommend selective scanning of the head and cervical spine (if not clinically clearable), and selective conventional imaging of any other suspicious areas. If additional detail of the thoracic and/or lumbar spine are needed, specific spine CT imaging should be used without contrast.

Related posts:

Reference: Pan-scanning for ground level falls in the elderly: really? ACS Surgical Forum, trauma abstracts, 2016.