Tag Archives: philosophy

The August Trauma MedEd Newsletter Is Coming Soon: The Laws of Trauma

I’m going to send out the next edition of the Trauma MedEd newsletter early next week. In this one, I’ll be presenting and discussing some of the “Laws of Trauma” that I’ve observed over the years. I think you’ll find them interesting and amusing.

As always, this issue will go to all of my subscribers first. If you are not yet one of them, click this link to sign up and/or download back issues.

Unfortunately, non-subscribers will have to wait until I release the issue on this blog, about 10 days later. So sign up now!

Don’t Just Read The Abstract: CT Scanning The Unstable Patient

I’ve said it many times before: “don’t just read the abstract.” They can be misleading, and doing so makes it impossible to see the shortcomings of the research model and the veracity of the conclusions. Yet good trauma professionals do it all the time.

So I’ve selected a recent poster child to demonstrate this tenet. Let’s go over the study details:

This paper is a retrospective, registry review from Japan. The authors point out that one of the long-held rules is to avoid scanning unstable trauma patients in the “tunnel of death.” The authors cite a prior study that did not show an increase in mortality from this practice. So they decided to repeat/confirm it using 11 years of national registry data.

They included all patients who arrived at the trauma center with blood pressure < 90. Interestingly, they excluded patients in frank or near arrest. And finally, patients with critical data points missing were excluded. They used a regression method to control for covariates such as age, ISS, and vitals upon arrival.

Here are the factoids:

  • Out of nearly 200,000 patients, about 7,000 were initially eligible. About 1,000 were excluded by the criteria above or because they were treated at a low volume facility. Only 5,809 were included in the study and another 500 were excluded because of missing covariates.
  • The authors found that there were significantly fewer deaths in the group of unstable patients taken to CT (20 fewer per 100 patients) (!!!?)
  • However, when corrected for confounders, this significant difference went away completely
  • But the authors conclusion in the abstract was: “We suggest physicians should consider CT as one of the diagnostic options even when patients are unstable.”

Bottom line: What? The study went from showing that taking an unstable patient to CT was amazing for decreasing mortality, to no different after applying more statistical methods. And since there was no difference, why not just go?

Here’s why. In-hospital and 24 hour mortality are not good indicators of anything because there are so many patient and hospital factors involved. And because it was a registry study, there was no way of knowing if the patient was hypotensive at the time they were taken to CT. They could have had a low blood pressure and responded well to resuscitation. Or they could have been normotensive on arrival and became hypotensive before CT scan. There is no way to cleanly identify the correct study group without a prospective study, or a very painstaking retrospective one.

One of the most important aspects of this study is some background info that is not stated in the paper. Surgeon involvement in initial resuscitation in Japan is not nearly as integrated as it is in the US. So if the resuscitating physicians can’t do anything about the bleeding in the ED, why not just scan them while awaiting arrival of the surgeon? If the patient crashes, was it due to the scan, or a delay in getting to the OR?

So don’t just read the abstract. If it seems to be too good to be true, it is. Or at least self-serving. Read the nitty gritty details and decide for yourself!

Next week: more on unstable patients and the CT scanner

Reference: Computed tomography during initial management and mortality among hemodynamically unstable blunt trauma patients: a nationwide retrospective cohort study. Scand J Trauma 25(1):74, 2017.

Why Did The Trauma Team Cut Off My Clothes?

The fifth highest priority taught in the ATLS course is exposure. This generally means getting the patient’s clothes off so any hidden injuries can be identified. Early in my career, I was called to see a patient who had a gunshot to the chest that had been missed because the consulting physician had neglected to cut off her bra. A small caliber wound was found under the elastic strap in her left anterior axillary line after a chest xray showed a bullet in mid-thorax.

The usual trauma activation routine is to cut off the clothes. There are several tips and tricks we use to do this quickly. And a number of commercial products are out there to make it even easier.

But do we really need to cut everyone’s clothes off? I’m not disputing the fact that it’s important to be able to examine every square inch. But do we need to destroy everything our patient is wearing? I once saw a sequined wedding dress cut off (it’s almost as bad as cutting off a down jacket).

The answer is no. The key concept here is patient safety. Can you safely remove the clothing in a less destructive way? For most victims of major blunt trauma, we worry a lot about the spine. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible to allow the patient to wriggle out of their clothes and protect their spine. The same goes for fractures; it may be too uncomfortable to remove clothing because of fracture movement so scissors are required.

Penetrating trauma is a bit different, and in many cases it’s a good idea to try to get the clothing off intact. Once again, if spinal injury is a consideration (gunshots only), the involved clothes should be cut off. A patient with a gunshot to the chest can probably have their pants safely and gently pulled off, but their shirt and coat must be cut.

The police forensic investigators like to have intact clothing, if possible. This is another good reason to try to remove clothing from penetrating injury victims without cutting.

Bottom line: Think before you cut clothes! Major blunt trauma and bad injuries require scissors. Lesser energy blunt injury may allow some pieces of clothing to be removed in the usual method. Most penetrating injury does not require cutting. But if you must (for patient safety), avoid any holes in the fabric so forensics experts can do their job.

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.

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!