Tag Archives: philosophy

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.

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!

How To Craft A Clinical Practice Guideline

All US trauma centers verified by the American College of Surgeons are required to have clinical practice guidelines (CPG). Trauma centers around the world generally have them, but may not be required to by their designating authority. But don’t confuse a policy about clinical management, say for head injury, with a real CPG. Policies are generally broad statements about how you (are supposed to) do things, whereas a CPG is a specific set of rules you use when managing a specific patient problem.

  1. Look around; don’t reinvent the wheel! This is the first mistake nearly every center makes. It seems like most want to spend hours and hours combing through the literature, trying to synthesize it and come up with a CPG from scratch. Guess what? Hundreds of other centers have already done this! And many have posted theirs online for all to see and learn from. Take advantage of their generosity. Look at several. Find the one that comes closest to meeting your needs. Then “borrow” it.
  2. Review the newest literature. Any existing CPG should have been created using the most up to date literature at the time. But that could have been several years ago. Look for anything new (and significant) that may require a few tweaks to the existing CPG.
  3. Create your draft, customizing it to your hospital. Doing things exactly the same as another center doesn’t always make sense, and it may not be possible. Tweak the protocols to match your resources and local standards of care. But don’t stray too far off of what the literature tells you is right.
  4. Make sure it is actionable. It should not be a literature summary, or a bunch of wishy-washy statements saying you could do this or consider doing that. Your CPG should spell out exactly what to do and when. (see examples below)
  5. Create a concise flow diagram. The fewer boxes the better. This needs to be easy to follow and simple to understand. It must fit on one page!
  6. Get buy-in from all services involved. Don’t try to implement your CPG by fiat. Use your draft as a launching pad. Let everyone who will be involved with it have their say, and be prepared to make some minor modifications to get buy-in from as many people as possible.
  7. Educate everybody! Start a campaign to explain the rationale and details of your CPG to everyone: physicians, nurses, techs, etc. Give educational presentations. You don’t want the eventual implementation to surprise anyone. Your colleagues don’t like surprises and will be less likely to follow along.
  8. Roll it out. Create processes and a timeline to roll it out. Give everyone several months to get used to it.
  9. Now monitor it! It makes no sense to implement something that no one follows. Create a monitoring system using your PI program. Include it in your reports or dashboards so providers can see how they are doing. And if you really want participation, let providers see how they are doing compared to their colleagues. Everyone wants to be the top dog.

In my next post, I’ll pontificate a bit about guidelines vs protocols, and the difference between evidence-based vs evidence-informed.

Why Create Practice Guidelines?

Practice guidelines are everywhere. More and more organizations have developed processes to create high quality ones. But why should we care? Do they improve what we already do?

Here are my reasons for using practice guidelines:

  • They provide a consistent way of approaching a clinical issue. Everybody working with the patient knows how things will be done, so they don’t have to remember the nuances that particular doctors or providers like.
  • They (hopefully) use the best and most valid scientific data to address the care issue, thus giving trauma professionals the opportunity to provide the best care we know of.
  • They decrease errors and complications by narrowing the number of choices available to providers.
  • They decrease waste for the same reason. For example, drawing blood every 6 hours vs daily for solid organ injuries can add up to three unneeded tests every day.
  • They provide our trainees with one good way to deal with the clinical issue. This is important when they move on to independent practice, and sometimes when taking standardized tests (boards).

Bottom line: If 10 trauma professionals deal with a given clinical problem 10 different ways, then none of them are doing it right! Develop a guideline that all of them can live with, based on current literature (if any). That way they can all be right for once, and our patients will reap the benefits.

In my next post, I’ll describe how to craft a good practice guideline.

If A Tree Falls In A Forest…

It’s time for a little philosophy today. There seem to be two camps in the world of initial diagnostic testing for trauma: selective scanning vs pan-scanning. I admit that I am one of the former. Yes, the more tests you do, the more things you will find, and this will make your radiologist happy. Some of these findings 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?”

Huh? How does this answer my question? Well, 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.”

References:

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