Discharged and Dropped Dead

The Emergency Department is a land of uncertainty. Generally a time-compressed, zero-continuity environment with limited resources, we frequently need to make relatively rapid decisions based on incomplete information. The goal, in general, is to treat and disposition patients in an advantageous fashion to prevent morbidity and mortality, while minimizing the costs and other harms.

The consequence of this confluence of factors leads, unfortunately, to a handful of patients who meet their unfortunate end following discharge. A Kaiser Permanente Emergency Department cohort analysis found 0.05% died within 7 days of discharge, and identified a few interesting risk factors regarding their outcomes. This new article, in the BMJ, describes the outcomes of a Medicare cohort following discharge – and finds both similarities and differences.

One notable difference, and a focus of the authors, is that 0.12% of patients discharged from the Emergency Department died within 7 days. This is a much larger proportion than the Kaiser cohort, however, the Medicare population is obviously a much older cohort with greater comorbidities. Then, they found similarities regarding the risks for death – most prominently, “altered mental status”. The full accounting of clinical features is described in the figure below:

Then, there were some system-level factors as well. Potentially, rural emergency departments and those with low annual volumes contributed in their multivariate model to increased risk of death. This data set is insufficient to draw any specific conclusions regarding these contributing factors, but it raises questions for future research. In general, however, this is interesting – and not terribly surprising data – even if it is hard to identify specific operational interventions based on these broad strokes.

“Early death after discharge from emergency departments: analysis of national US insurance claims data”

Insight Is Insufficient

In this depressing trial, we witness a disheartening truth – physicians won’t necessarily do better, even if they know they’re not doing well.

This study tested a mixed educational and peer comparison intervention on primary care physicians in Switzerland, with an end goal of improving antibiotic stewardship for common ambulatory complaints. The “worst-performing” 2,900 physicians with respect to antibiotic prescribing rates were enrolled and randomized to the study intervention or none. The study intervention consisted of materials regarding appropriate prescribing, along with personalized feedback regarding where their prescribing rate ranked compared to the entire national cohort. The core of their hypothesis involved whether just this passive knowledge regarding their peer performance would exert normalizing influence over their practice.

Unfortunately, despite providing these physicians with this insight, as well as tools for improvement, the net effect of their intervention was effectively zero. There were some observations regarding changes in prescribing rates for certain age groups, and for certain types of antibiotics, but dredging through these secondary outcomes leads to only unreliable conclusions.

This is not particularly surprising data. These sorts of passive feedback mechanisms unhitched from material consequences have never previously been shown to be effective. There are other, more effective mechanisms – focused education, decision-support interventions, and shared decision-making – but, for a fragmented, national health system, this represented a relatively inexpensive model to test.

Try again!

“Personalized Prescription Feedback Using Routinely Collected Data to Reduce Antibiotic Use in Primary Care”


Stumbling Around Risks and Benefits

Practicing clinicians contain multitudes: the vastness of critical medical knowledge applicable to the nearly infinite permutaions of individual patients.  However, lost in the shuffle is apparently a grasp of the basic fundamentals necessary for shared decision-making: the risks, benefits, and harms of many common treatments.

This simple research letter describes a survey distributed to a convenience sample of residents and attending physicians at two academic medical centers. Physicians were asked to estimate the incidence of a variety of effects from common treatments, both positive and negative. A sample question and result:

treatment effect estimates
The green responses are those which fell into the correct range for the question. As you can see, in these two questions, hardly any physician surveyed guessed correctly.  This same pattern is repeated for the remaining questions – involving peptic ulcer prevention, cancer screening, and bleeding complications on aspirin and anticoagulants.

Obviously, only a quarter of participants were attending physicians – though no gross differences in performance were observed between various levels of experience. Then, some of the ranges are narrow with small magnitudes of effect between the “correct” and “incorrect” answers. Regardless, however, the general conclusion of this survey – that we’re not well-equipped to communicate many of the most common treatment effects – is probably valid.

“Physician Understanding and Ability to Communicate Harms and Benefits of Common Medical Treatments”

Your New Career in “Waiting Room Medicine”

A few years back, a facetious advertisement in the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine promoted the availability of fellowship positions in “Waiting Room Medicine”, a comedic take on the struggles of the specialty to manage increasing patient volume with limited resources. While there are certainly Emergency Departments with ample space and “white glove”-type service – see the for-profit expansion of free-standing EDs in states like Texas – there are also publicly-funded and other EDs that struggle with physical bed space for patients for a variety of reasons.

This study attempts to quantify the effect of an intervention utilized by many overburdened or otherwise saturated EDs – starting the initial evaluation in triage with either provider-directed or protocolized orders. At UCLA/Olive-View, all patients presenting to an already-full ED received an initial rapid evaluation by an attending physician or nurse practitioner. During their 10-month study period, non-pregnant adults with abdominal pain were randomized to either receiving initial evaluation orders following this evaluation, or to be returned to the waiting room to await full evaluation at a later time pending bed availability.

There were 1,691 enrolled and randomized, with approximately 10% excluded from analysis mostly because they left the ED before their evaluation was complete. Overall, the initiation of the work-up in triage saved patients approximately a half-hour, on average, of bedded time in the ED. This was reflected by a similar absolute decrease in overall ED length-of-stay. There were a couple other interesting tidbits unique to their execution:

  • The most profound difference associated with WR medicine was simply blood and urine testing. While imaging could be ordered up front, it was rarely done.
  • Some of the advantages related to the WR blood testing were minimized by ~13% of patients receiving further testing after being bedded in the ED.
  • Patients randomized to WR medicine received, on average, a greater number of diagnostics per patient, probably representing resource waste.

So – yes, this probably accurately reflects the impact of orders placed in triage: some wasted resources based on the initial, incomplete evaluation, with a trade-off of potential time savings. The extent to which your system might benefit from a similar set-up is probably related to your level of chronic bed scarcity.

“Initiating Diagnostic Studies on Patients With Abdominal Pain in the Waiting Room Decreases Time Spent in an Emergency Department Bed: A Randomized Controlled Trial”

The Downside of Antibiotic Stewardship

There are many advantages to curtailing antibiotic prescribing. Costs are reduced, fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria are induced, and treatment-associated adverse events are eliminated.

This retrospective, population-based study, however, illuminates the potential drawbacks. Using electronic record review spanning 10 years of general practice encounters, these authors compared infectious complication rates between practices with low and high antibiotic prescribing rates. Spanning 45.5 million person-years of follow-up after office visits for respiratory tract infections, there is both reason for reassurance and reason for further concern.

On the “pro” side, cases of mastoiditis, empyema, bacterial meningitis, intracranial abscess and Lemierre’s syndrome were no different between those who prescribed high rates (>58%) and those with low rates (<44%). However, there is a reasonably clear linear relationship with excess follow-up encounters for both pneumonia and peritonsilar abscess. Incidence rate ratios were 0.70 compared with reference for pneumonia and 0.78 compared with reference for peritonsillar abscess. However, the absolute differences can best be described as “large handful” and “small handful” of extra cases per 100,000 encounters

There are many rough edges and flaws relating to these data, some of which are probably adequately defeated by the massive cohort size. I think it is reasonable to interpret this article as accurately reflecting true harms from antibiotic stewardship. More work should absolutely be pursued in terms of strategies to mitigate these potential downstream complications, but I believe the balance of benefits and harms still falls on the side of continued efforts in stewardship.

“Safety of reduced antibiotic prescribing for self limiting respiratory tract infections in primary care: cohort study using electronic health records”


The “IV Antibiotics” Sham

Among the many overused tropes in medicine is the myth of the supremacy of intravenous antibiotics.  In the appropriate clinical context, it’s just a waste.

This is a retrospective analysis of 36,405 patients hospitalized for community-acquired pneumonia, and for whom a fluoroquinolone was selected as therapy.  The vast majority – 94% – received an intravenous dose, while the remaining 2,205 (6%) were treated orally.  Unadjusted mortality favored the oral dose – unsurprisingly, as those patients also generally has fewer comorbid conditions.  In their multivariate, propensity-matched analysis, there was no difference in mortality, intensive care unit escalation, or mechanical ventilation.

These results are wholly unsurprising, and the key feature is the class of antibiotic involved.  Commonly used antibiotics in the fluoroquinolone class, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, metronidazole, and clindamycin, among others, have excellent oral absorption.  I have seen many a referral to the Emergency Department for “intravenous antibiotics” prior to an anticipated discharge to home therapy when any one of these choices could have obviated the entire encounter.

“Association Between Initial Route of Fluoroquinolone Administration and Outcomes in Patients Hospitalized for Community-acquired Pneumonia”

Pan-Scans Don’t Save Lives

Humans are fallible.  We don’t always make good choices, and our patients – bless their hearts – can sometimes be time bombs wrapped in meat.  Logically, then, as many trauma services have concluded, the solution is to eliminate the weak link: don’t let the human chose which parts of the body to scan – just scan it all.

This is REACT-2, a randomised [sic] trial evaluating precisely the limits to human judgment in a resource-utilization versus immediacy context.  In this multi-center trial, adult trauma patients wth suspected serious injury were randomized to either imaging guided by clinical evaluation or total-body CT.  The primary outcome was in-hospital mortality, with secondary outcomes relating to timeliness of diagnosis, to mortality in other time frames, morbidity, and costs.

This was a massive undertaking, with 1,403 patients randomly assigned to one of the arms, with ~540 in each arm successfully allocated and included in their primary analysis.  Each cohort was well-matched on baseline characteristics, including all physiologic markers, although the Triage Revised Trauma Score was slightly lower (worse) for the total-body CT group.  The results, in most concise form, weakly favor selective scanning.  There was no difference in mortality nor complications nor length-of-stay nor virtually any reliable secondary outcome.  Costs, as measured in European terms, were no different, despite the few scans obviated.  Time-to-diagnosis was slightly faster in the total-body CT group, owing to skipping initial conventional radiography, while radiation exposure was slightly lower in the selective scanning group.

In some respects, it is not surprising there were no differences found – as CT was still frequently utilized in the selective CT cohort, including nearly half that ultimately underwent total-body CT.  There were some differences noted in in-hospital Injury Severity Score between groups, and I agree with Rory Spiegel’s assertion this is probably an artifact of the routine total-body CT.  This study can be used to justify either strategy, however – with selective CT proponents focusing on the lack of differences in patient-oriented outcomes, and total-body CT proponents noting minimal resource and radiation savings at the expense of timeliness.

“Immediate total-body CT scanning versus conventional imaging and selective CT scanning in patients with severe trauma (REACT-2): a randomised controlled trial”

Excitement and Ennui in the ED

It goes without saying some patient encounters are more energizing and rewarding than others.  As a corollary, some chief complaints similarly suck the joy out of the shift even before beginning the patient encounter.

This entertaining study simply looks for any particular time differential relating to physician self-assignment on the electronic trackboard between presenting chief complaints.  The general gist of this study would be that time-to-assignment reflects a surrogate of a composite of prioritization and/or desirability.

These authors looked at 30,382 presentations unrelated to trauma activations, and there were clear winners and losers.  This figure of the shortest and longest 10 complaints is a fairly concise summary of findings:

door to eval times

Despite consistently longer self-assignment times for certain complaints, the absolute difference in minutes is still quite small.  Furthermore, there are always issues with relying on these time stamps, particularly for higher-acuity patients; the priority of “being at the patient’s bedside” always trumps such housekeeping measures.  I highly doubt ankle sprains and finger injuries are truly seen more quickly than overdoses and stroke symptoms.

Vaginal bleeding, on the other hand … is deservedly pulling up the rear.

“Cherry Picking Patients: Examining the Interval Between Patient Rooming and Resident Self-assignment”

Choosing Wisely – Invisible, Impractical

There are two parts to Choosing Wisely – the “Five Things” and then the bit where “Physicians and Patients Should Question” them.  Most specialities – for better or worse – have generated lists of five things.  Some go beautifully against the grain, like Pediatric Hospital Medicine.  Others are criticized for mostly what is lacking.

Regardless, these suggestions work only when physicians are aware of them, and their suggestions are practical.  This survey of outpatient physicians in a group in the state of Massachusetts, unfortunately, is rather bleak.  At best, 47.2% of primary care physicians were aware of Choosing Wisely, compared with a mere 27% of surgical specialists.  In a similar pattern, less than half and then less than a quarter of PCPs and surgeons felt Choosing Wisely was “Yes, absolutely” a legitimate source of guidance.  Finally, just over half of all physicians surveyed felt the Choosing Wisely campaign had empowered them to reduce testing and procedures.

This is, of course, better than zero – which was effectively the base case.  That said, these authors identified many barriers to their use.  Physicians preferred to serve their patients desires and interests over the guidelines and recommendations made based on medical evidence.  Further, most all physicians expressed a fear of malpractice and legal difficulties.

Awareness, certainly, would be a start.  Then, making these recommendations usable in practice – moreso than then currently are – might be the next step in helping physicians bring them into the conversation.

“Physician Perceptions of Choosing Wisely and Drivers of Overuse”

Severe Sepsis … or ß-Agonist

As our sepsis overlords entrenched new “quality measures” and other protocol-driven resuscitation requirements in our Emergency Departments, this article serves as a lovely reminder of the importance of staying cognitively engaged.

Lactate levels can be elevated by metabolic and microcirculatory derangements related to the spectrum of sepsis – but also other, non-infectious causes.  These include hepatic disease, multiple toxodromes, and multiple medications – one of the most commonly used being beta-agonist therapy for obstructive airways.  This very simple study examines the physiologic changes in healthy volunteers receiving 10mg of nebulized albuterol, as compared with nebulized saline.  Placebo volunteers had no change in lactate or placebo.  Albuterol receiving volunteers had an average increase in lactate of 0.77 mmol/L and an average decrease in potassium of 0.5 mEq/L.  Lactate increases, however, were highly variable – ranging from 0.04 to 2.02 mmol/L.

These data aren’t perfectly generalizable to the critically or pseudo-critically ill, but they’re a reasonable starting point for a gross estimate.  They’re also justification for reconsideration of potentially inappropriate therapies for an intermediate-range lactate that obstinately refuses to clear – in the context of receiving multiple rounds of nebulizers.

At the very least, it’s a reminder of the various exceptions to our protocols we need to consider to prevent costly and avoidable harms.

“The Effect of Nebulized Albuterol on Serum Lactate and Potassium in Healthy Subjects”