Tag Archives: philosophy

When You Order A Test, Check The Results!

This is one of those rules that seems so obvious. But you would be surprised how many times it’s ignored. Here’s just one example that can go wrong in so many ways:

  • You order a chest xray during a trauma activation for blunt trauma, but don’t view it before the patient is transported to CT scan. 

How this can go wrong:

  1. A very large pneumothorax is present, bordering on a tension pneumothorax. Either the patient must be brought back to the ED or all the equipment needed to insert a chest tube must be taken to CT, which is not an ideal place for this procedure.
  2. The stomach is in the left chest. The patient should have been taken directly to OR. There is no need for CT.
  3. A massive hemothorax is noted. However, blood products have not been ordered and the patient suddenly becomes hypotensive in CT. This is not a good place for resuscitation. And the chest tube problem in #1 applies here, too.
  4. A bullet is plainly seen in the middle of the right chest. This unexpected finding shows that the physical exam (or the history of the event) was inaccurate.

And the list goes on. And this is just one of a zillion possible tests that are ordered every day. In this example, looking at the image is simple in this day and age of having PACS viewers everywhere. However, many tests are not available for hours (coags), or are actually done at a later time (morning hemoglobin). This means more opportunities to miss significant results, and although they may not be as life-threatening as my trauma example, failure to check them can still cause significant problems.

Bottom line: Always review the result of every test you order, on every patient. In this age of shift work and work hour restrictions, a good hand-off to other trauma professionals is very important. You must make sure that somebody sees that result in a timely manner soon after it is available. 

Corollary: If you really don’t need to see that result (i.e. it’s not going to change your care anyway), you shouldn’t have ordered the test!

Related post

Why People Don’t Change Their Minds Despite The Data

Has this happened to you?

Your (emergency physician / neurosurgeon / orthopaedic surgeon) colleague wants to (get rib detail xrays / administer steroids / wait a few days before doing a femur ORIF). You question it based on your interpretation of the literature. You even provide a stack of papers to them to prove your point. Do they buy it? Even in the presence of randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies with thousands of patients (good luck finding those)?

The answer is generally NO! Why not? It’s science. It’s objective data. WTF?

Sociologists and psychologists have shown that there is a concept that they call the Backfire Effect. Essentially, once you come to believe something, you do your best to protect it from harm. You become more skeptical of facts that refute your beliefs, and less skeptical of the items that support them. Having one’s beliefs challenged, even with objective and authoritative data, causes us to hold them even more deeply. There are plenty of examples of this in everyday life. The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The number of shooters in the JFK assassination. President Obama’s citizenship.

Bottom line: It’s human nature to try to pick apart a scientific article that challenges your biases, looking for every possible fault. It’s the Backfire Effect. Be aware of this built in flaw (protective mechanism?) in our psyche. And always ask yourself, “what if?” Look at the issue through the eyes of someone not familiar with the concepts. If someone challenges your beliefs, welcome it! Be skeptical of both them AND yourself. You might just learn something new!

If A Tree Falls In A Forest…

Time for a little philosophy today. There seem to be two camps in the world of initial diagnostic testing for trauma: selective scanning vs scan everything. I admit that I am one of the former. Yes, the more tests you do, the more things you will find. Some will be red herrings. Some may be true positives, but are they important? Here’s the key question:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?”

There is a clinical corollary to this question in the field of trauma:

“If an injury exists but no one diagnoses it, does it make a difference (if there would be no change in treatment)?”

Here’s an example. On occasion, my colleagues want to order diagnostic studies that won’t make any clinical difference, in my opinion. A prime example is getting a chest CT after a simple blunt assault. A plain chest xray is routine, and if injuries are seen or the physical exam points to certain diagnoses, appropriate interventions should be taken. But adding a chest CT does not help. Nothing more than the usual pain management, pulmonary toilet, and an occasional chest tube will be needed, and those can be determined without the CT.

Trauma professionals need to realize that we don’t need to know absolutely every diagnosis that a patient has. Ones that need no treatment are of academic interest only, and can lead to accidental injury if we look for them too hard (radiation exposure, contrast reaction, extravasation into soft tissues to name a few). This is how we get started on the path to “defensive medicine.”

Bottom line: Think hard about every test you order. Consider what you are looking for, what you might find, and if it will change your management in any way. If it could, go ahead. But always consider the benefits versus the potential risks, or what I call the “juice to squeeze ratio.”

Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the “scan all” vs “scan selectively” literature. Which camp are you in?

References:

  • George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1734, section 45.
  • paraphrased by William Fossett, Natural States, 1754.

The First Law Of Trauma

Time for some more philosophy! After doing anything for an extended period, one begins to see the common threads and underlying principles of their area of expertise. I’ve been trying to crystallize these for years, and today I’m going to share one of the most basic laws of trauma care.

The First Law of Trauma: Any anomaly in your trauma patient is due to trauma, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

Some examples:

  • An elderly patient who crashes his car and presents with arrhythmias and chest pain is not having a heart attack. Nor does he need a cardiologist or a trip to the cath lab.
  • A spot in the liver after blunt trauma is not a cyst or hemangioma; it is a laceration until proven otherwise.
  • A patient found at the bottom of a flight of stairs with blood in their head did not have a stroke and then fall down. 

Bottom line: The possibility of trauma always comes first! It is your job to rule it out. Only consider non-traumatic problems as a last resort. Don’t let your non-trauma colleagues try to steer you down the wrong path, only to have your patient suffer.

Related posts:

The better is the enemy of the good

From the poem “The Prude Woman” by Voltaire, 1772.

This adage is particularly important in medicine. Every test and treatment we order has an upside (hopefully) that will reveal something or make our patient better. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore the inescapable downsides, which include cost and unanticipated consequences. These consequences are the discomfort, side effects, and dangers that come with any medical intervention. And in some cases, the results of an unneeded test may be in error or show some red herring that leads us on a wild goose chase of other interventions that compound the danger.

Bottom line: All trauma professionals need to think about everything they do to a patient, especially the risks they will inflict and the benefits that might accrue. Consider how it will influence your care. Will anything that is revealed change what you do? If not, you don’t need it. And your patient certainly doesn’t need the costs and hidden dangers that go along with it.