Acceptable Risk

Following up on our previous post where we discussed patient refusals, it behooves us to say a few things about risk.

The culture of “everyone goes to the ED” is not writ in stone, and in some places, efforts are underway to expand it into a more sophisticated system. For instance, some patients might be transported directly to detox programs, homeless shelters, urgent care facilities, or psych treatment. Some, of course, don’t need to be transported at all, and can stay home, perhaps with instructions to follow up with their PCP. A few areas are experimenting with, or at least moving towards, the concept of an “Advanced Practice Paramedic” or “Advanced Paramedic Practitioner” who could sensibly and intelligently perform this assessment and triage, determining whether patients need immediate definitive care, or (in essence) “clearing” them of acute high-risk pathologies. Ideas like this may prove central to solving the many problems of healthcare in general and EMS in particular, such as ED overcrowding and the inefficient use of available resources.

However, just like the issue of patient refusals, to even discuss the possibility of such a system requires a fundamental shift in our thinking. At the moment, the approach is, “Try to recognize and treat Sick People — but if you don’t, that’s okay, because they’ll recognize them at the hospital.” Obviously, this practice is based firmly on the presumption that most or all of our patients do end up being evaluated in a full-fledged emergency department. Even the very notion that a patient can refuse to be transported ends up as a grudging allowance — we reluctantly acknowledge that we can’t actually kidnap people, but we still make them jump through hoops to make it entirely clear that we wanted them to go all along.

What if we started to accept that some of these patients don’t need an emergency room? Realistically, and retrospectively, it’s obvious that many of them don’t. Other destinations are more appropriate, and in some cases, no transport at all is necessary. But in order to make decisions like that, we need to be able to accept the assessment, clinical decision-making, and risk stratification of our field providers.

It goes without saying that instituting such a practice would require additional training, and providers (such as this mythical APP) practicing at a higher level than our current EMTs and medics. But it’s bigger than that. We have to be willing to let go of the safety net of everyone filtering through the ED. We have to be willing to accept the field workup as final — or at least, good enough that no further evaluation is immediately needed.

Closely wedded with the prehospital culture that treats patient refusals as bogeymen is the in-hospital culture that says every patient needs a comprehensive workup to rule out every possible killer. It doesn’t matter if the odds are 1,000,000 to 1 that the problem is benign rather than a massive MI or hidden PE; that 1/1,000,000 chance of missing the Badness is still unacceptable, so the patient gets the works.

We have the mindset that any miss is one miss too many.

This costs a lot of money. It puts patients through a lot of hell. But most of all, if we’re going to imagine a world where not every patient ends up even going to the emergency department, we have to accept a world where the ones who don’t will not receive that exhaustive workup.

Certainly, this triage process be handled sensibly, and conservatively, because we’re here to help people, not let them die at reasonable rates. So where do we draw the line? Is one miss in a thousand acceptable? One in a million? One in a billion?

We can draw the line wherever we want, but no matter where, there’s going to be a qualitative difference between a reasonable risk and “we did everything.” Because eventually, we’re going to miss one. A well-trained and conscientious clinician is going to assess a patient in their home, and appropriately conclude that their complaint is not dangerous, and that patient is going to die.

Because it happens — because flukes are inevitable. If we throw the kitchen sink at them, and we still lose, then at least we can hold ourselves blameless. But if we take a more reasonable approach, then we have to accept in advance that occasionally, the chips will fall against us. And that has to be okay.

The prevailing belief today is that anytime something goes wrong, something was done wrong. Adverse outcomes are an indicator of error, either an individual error or a flaw in policy or protocol. If I follow our procedures to the letter, and a patient slips through the cracks, it means we need to change the procedure.

Can we get to the point where we understand that if a situation is correctly evaluated, and the risks are correctly balanced, and we simply happen to get unlucky, that the decision was still right? Where we can stop spending ever-increasing amounts of time and money in the pursuit of ever-more-infinitesimal risk?

I don’t know. But if we can’t, then we’re never going to be able to solve some of these problems. Because perfection doesn’t exist, and chasing it is a good way to get very tired.

But it’s Just a Broken Nail!

One of the most common topics of debate in this business is something that should be simple. When is it okay for a patient to refuse transport to the hospital?

On the face of it this is a strange dilemma. When is it “okay”? What does that even mean? When is it okay to have Milano cookies and a bottle of Scotch for dinner? I don’t know. Leave me alone.

The chain of reasoning goes something like this. People call 911 because they have problems, and they don’t know how bad those problems are. By and large, we — the EMTs and paramedics on the ambulance — don’t know either. We don’t have the training or the tools to truly rule out major problems. So the only safe thing is to take the patient to the hospital. There, tall men with white coats, eight years of medical training, large expensive machines, and extensive liability insurance can decide if the patient is dying or not.

Okay. In some ways, that makes sense.

In other ways, it’s absurd. We all experience symptoms or incur injuries from time to time, and for the most part, we do not feel the need to visit the hospital to rule out deadly causes. Although it’s always a remote possibility that something is horribly wrong, in most cases it’s extremely unlikely, and it’s senseless to make an emergency out of every ache or sniffle. As we recently discussed, although it is possible to be very sick without looking like it, it is uncommon. If I woke up today with a minor headache, I wouldn’t want to spend hours of my time and hundreds of dollars at the emergency room “just in case.” So why does that suddenly become a reasonable course of action just because an EMS crew is standing in front of me?

There’s one good answer to this, which is that normally, I wouldn’t call 911 for a headache. So if there’s an ambulance here, it already means that for some reason, I had some special concern about this episode. Perhaps it was unusually bad, or prolonged, or I have medical history which makes me worried about what a headache might entail. Alternately, perhaps a friend or family member called on my behalf, but even then, presumably it’s because they had some reason to be worried.

This is all true. People who call for an ambulance are self-selected to be a higher-risk group than the general population. The headache patient who does dial 911 is more likely to be sick than the headache patient who doesn’t.

However, this isn’t always the case, and even when it is, it isn’t always significant. Some patients, or friends and family of patients, have a very low threshold for concern. Sometimes people misinterpret warning signs. Sometimes things just happen. Consider the hundreds of calls we take each year for minor MVCs. Someone dents their fender in traffic, a concerned passerby calls 911, and we show up to evaluate the occupants. There are no noteworthy injuries, and it wasn’t even the people involved who called for us. Is there a chance they have head bleeds, spinal fractures, pulmonary contusions? There’s always a chance. But do they need to go to the hospital? Or, put another way: they didn’t plan on going to the hospital before we arrived. We performed our medical assessment and found nothing alarming. Does the simple fact that we’re here mean there’s any better reason for them to go to the hospital than before we arrived?

Obviously, the answer is no. But we still tend to default to transporting them.

A cynic might suggest that this is because in most areas, ambulance providers can only bill for transports, not for refusals. In fairness, I don’t think this is usually the main reason.

A bigger reason is liability. There is a real concern on the part of providers, and on the part of the services employing us, that anytime we fail to transport a patient to definitive care, we might be “missing” something bad. As a result, they might later sue us for missing this. Would they have a case? Maybe, maybe not; it would depend on whether we followed the standard of care, and whether we implied to them that we “knew” they were okay with any greater certainty than we truly had. That’s the underlying issue, after all. It’s up to the patient whether they want to go, but we are medical professionals, with impressive uniforms and stethoscopes around our necks, and patients are therefore inclined to think that we know things they don’t. They’re inclined to do what we recommend. But even if we think they’re okay, we don’t know they’re okay, so our “recommendation” is usually to see the doctor, because that’s the only truly “safe” choice from our point of view.

Fair enough. But there’s a small problem with this. We’re lying.

Or at least deceiving. We are trained to assess patients, look for abnormalities, and identify findings that point to the possibility of injury or pathology. If we perform this task, and find nothing alarming or even suspicious, we are going to be thinking, “they’re probably okay. I’m not worried.” Why, then, do we turn to the patient and say, “You should really go to the hospital. I’m worried.”? One major national ambulance company has a policy that you should never ask, “Do you want to go to the hospital?” as it implies a choice — but instead, “Which hospital do you want to go to?” Railroading at its finest.

Certainly, it would be just as misleading to tell a patient, “You’re definitely okay.” We don’t know that, because as we already agreed, we lack the training and resources to diagnose anything for sure. But we do have enough tools to make medical decisions, which we do all the time — what’s the best transport destination? which medication is indicated? — and here, too, we can make an analysis of the risk factors. It’s not the same analysis that would be made by a team of doctors with a hospital at their backs, but as long as we don’t pretend that it is, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Think of it this way. If you were in the patient’s situation, would you want to go to the hospital?

Bear in mind that this isn’t a small thing. Depending on your circumstances, this may involve missing work (even losing a job), arrangements needing to be made for babysitting, housesitting, or pet care, cars retrieved, plans cancelled, and oh yes — a bill ranging from a few dollars to many thousands. Can’t pay that? Now your credit is on the line. You can also look forward to hours of sitting on a series of stretchers, wheelchairs, and beds, while busy people wearing scrubs stick sharp things into your flesh, capture your bodily excreta in plastic cups, and ask you an endless series of the same questions over and over and over. You will miss sleep, get behind on projects or errands, and in the end you will have to find a way to get yourself home and clean up from all this chaos. Possibly with a new infection that you picked up in the waiting room.

If we are responsible, we should view transportation to the hospital as a medical intervention in the same category as medications, invasive procedures, and diagnostic tests. It has certain indications and benefits, but also certain risks and harms associated with it, and we should consider both sides in balance before making a recommendation on the best choice. Certainly, that decision will have to be made by the patient, not by us, because it’s the patient who is undergoing these risks and benefits, so it’s they who get to decide how to weigh them. But they also don’t have the medical understanding of the situation that we do. So that’s our job: to transmit to them what we’ve found in our assessment of their complaint. The risk factors, the positive or negative findings on their physical, any alarming vital signs, and the salient features of their history. In many cases, this process is why they called us — because although they’re experiencing something abnormal, they don’t know if they should be worried or not. We won’t have all the answers, but we can give them more information than they had before, and they can use that information to better inform their decision on whether to seek further care. (Remember, this might include scheduling an appointment with their PCP, visiting an urgent care clinic, getting a ride to the ED or driving themselves, and of course the old “wait-and-see” approach. Even when more care is needed, the ambulance isn’t the only answer.)

For the reasons of liability, and policy, and the general fear-mongering attitude that has swept over the healthcare industry in recent years, this is a very difficult line to walk, and in many cases to preserve your job and license you may need to err on the side of “encouraging” a patient to be transported. However, I find it ethically troubling when we mindlessly push everyone towards the ED, no matter what common sense or their medical situation tell us. When we visit someone with a complaint that we’d ignore in ourselves, our partner, or our mother, and convince them to climb into the ambulance anyway, whose best interest are we looking out for?

Are we hurting the patient to help ourselves?

Are we okay with that?

The Art of the Transfer (part 3)

Continued from part 2

There’s another benefit of patient transfers beyond the merely educational. You get to meet the people.

Oh, you meet people on emergencies. Depending on the nature. Dead people don’t talk much. (You get a look at their houses, maybe.) And really sick people, well, you’re pretty focused on the medical stuff then. Patch this, pump that, push the magic potion. When did it start? Have you felt this way before? What Russ Reina calls the business of being a “flesh mechanic.”

But on a routine transfer, and to a lesser extent on the non-emergent “emergencies” (when you have little to do and no hurry to do it), you get to actually chat with the human being upon your stretcher. Imagine that! They don’t just have a name and date of birth — they have a trade, a family, a history, a life.

Everyone has a story. Some of them are more interesting than others on the surface, such as the retired spy or the film star, but everyone has a story, and they’re all worth hearing, if you care.

Most of these people are old. If you’re not old, you may think this means they have less to say to you, but really, it’s the opposite. You’re 25 and they’re 90; all of the problems you’ve got, all the changes in the world you think are new, every dilemma you’ve ever faced, they’ve seen it and heard it and done it. They’ve been alive for several of you. Do you think people live that long without knowing their way around?

I once heard it suggested that you don’t really grow any wiser as you age, because although you learn from your mistakes, there are still an infinite number of future mistakes to be made. You never “run out” of new errors.

Perhaps that’s true. But even if the 90-year-old benefits little from his wisdom, that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow some of it. And even if his experiences or decisions differ from yours, they were just as important to him as yours are to you, and you can bet the stories are worth hearing.

Where else can you meet such a range of people? And not just meet, but find yourself forced into spending one-on-one time with them? If you’re a misanthrope, this is not a good career for you. Multiple times a day you’ll be placed in a small box with a stranger for a period lasting minutes to hours. It’s like speed dating.

But if you like people — enjoy meeting them, appreciate their company, take pleasure in their lives — then there’s no better job to have.

David Hiltz on Resuscitation

In mid-May, FDNY hosted an educational conference on the topic of resuscitation. Numerous invited speakers, including medical directors from many of the country’s largest EMS systems, discussed issues like current research trends, “pit crew” models for CPR, and optimizing systems of care for communities.

I attended with David Hiltz, a longtime paramedic who now works with the AHA. A lot of valuable ideas were shared that weekend, including some material that bears upon Dave’s own work. I asked him to discuss it with me, bringing to bear his perspectives as a field provider, an educator, and a longtime “bridge builder” for Sudden Cardiac Arrest continuity of care.

A disclaimer: David’s participation here is solely personal in nature, and none of his comments or opinions should be understood as being officially endorsed or approved by the American Heart Association.

Brandon Oto: Dave, for those not familiar with you and your work, can you introduce yourself briefly?

David Hiltz: I have been in the healthcare industry since 1984, and over time, working in hospital emergency departments and with EMS agencies, I developed an interest in resuscitation.  I have been on staff with the American Heart Association’s Emergency Cardiovascular Care Programs for over 13 years and during that time, I have had the good fortune of meeting some really brilliant and committed people from whom I have learned so much.

BO: You’re involved with the AHA’s HEARTSafe Communities initiative. Can you tell us about that? What are you and the AHA trying to do?

DH: To be correct, the HEARTSafe program does not really “belong” to anyone. Rather, it’s a concept for communities to use in improving recognition, response, care, and outcomes for cardiac arrest patients.

The HEARTSafe program is a population and criteria-based incentive program designed to advance systems change in accordance with the American Heart Association’s Chain of Survival. Individuals, businesses, public officials, and emergency responder agencies are asked to establish a cardiac arrest response system geared toward these criteria.

The primary goal of the HEARTSafe Communities program is to increase survival rates from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.  Individual communities are asked to develop and implement lifesaving strategies that focus on coordinating local resources to prevent sudden cardiac arrest from becoming sudden cardiac death.

Half the men and women with serious coronary artery disease first learn about it in a dramatic way: sudden cardiac arrest.

Outcomes at this point depend on whether the collapse is witnessed, whether the bystanders are trained and willing to perform CPR, and whether the arrest has occurred in a system set up to allow the early arrival of needed resources and the timely execution of evidence-based interventions.

Many have recognized the need to improve community systems of emergency cardiovascular care in order to optimize patient survival. The “Chain of Survival” represents the current approach to improving recognition, response, and care.

Decades after its creation, this same systematic and coordinated approach remains the strongest recommendation the resuscitation community can make to save more people in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. (Not that I have any business being a “representative of the collective opinion” of the resuscitation community!) The idea is simply to maximize each community’s resources by implementing appropriate measures and strategies to achieve the greatest attainable patient survival.

There are numerous systems around the world where the implementation of community-based measures has lead to improved outcomes for critical out-of-hospital patients. I believe that programs such as Heart Rescue and HEARTSafe Communities are valuable frameworks for any group looking to explore related strategies for improving survival and quality of life.

BO: This past May, you and I were able to attend a conference on Randall’s Island, hosted by FDNY and focusing on topics surrounding resuscitation. The main theme was a continuing reinforcement of the basic fundamentals of resuscitation by laypeople and BLS responders, especially the importance of early, ongoing, and high-quality CPR.

Several speakers made the particular point that improving bystander CPR rates is one of the most important and highest-value steps we can take to improve our survival rates; Dr. Chris Colwell described it as the low-hanging fruit of the Chain of Survival. Overall, Dr. Paul Hinchey suggested that we need to shift our priorities away from the clinical practices of professional rescuers and clinical centers, and towards the recruitment of the general population.

Based on your experience with HEARTSafe, what are the principal challenges to improving bystander CPR rates? Why haven’t we been able to accomplish this important and seemingly simple task in all of our communities?

DH: Let me first say how much I enjoyed attending the conference and spending time with old and new friends there.

Your questions are significant ones.  This statement from the Executive Summary of the 2010 American Heart Association Guidelines for CPR and ECC Science articulates the core issue at hand:

Although technology, such as that incorporated in automated external defibrillators (AEDs), has contributed to increased survival from cardiac arrest, no initial intervention can be delivered to the victim of cardiac arrest unless bystanders are ready, willing, and able to act.

Bystander CPR can dramatically improve survival from cardiac arrest, yet far less than half of victims receive this potentially lifesaving therapy. CPR is inexpensive, readily available, and can save lives. Based on what we know, increasing the rates of bystander-initiated CPR is critical to improving outcomes.

There are a number of theories regarding the hesitation of bystanders to perform CPR, even when adequately trained. Mouth-to-mouth breathing and concern about the transmission of infectious disease may explain reluctance among some. Another potential barrier to learning and performing bystander CPR has been the complexity of past resuscitation guidelines. This complexity may affect a citizen’s willingness to learn CPR skills, contribute to a failure of recall, or negatively impact confidence in their ability to perform during an emergency.

While “fear of failure” is often cited as a major barrier, some bystanders may also decline to perform CPR because of legal concerns, and are often not aware of their protections under Good Samaritan statutes. Many educators and clinicians continue to hear concerns such as, “What if I break a rib?”, “What if the person dies?”, and “Can’t I hurt someone with CPR?” Fears like these should not get in the way of helping another person in their ultimate time of need. Knowing and performing CPR should be thought of as a moral obligation and civic duty.

Widespread access to CPR education is another potential barrier.  In many cases, citizens need to make a concerted effort to identify and enroll in a CPR program.  For instance, many sources for CPR education focus their efforts on training healthcare providers and do not routinely offer appropriate courses for the general population. This should change.

The marketing surrounding CPR are also important.  My experience has been that despite our best intentions, CPR “advertisements” are often poorly conceived and send the wrong message.  Make no mistake, regardless of whether you are a hospital, an EMS agency, or a lone instructor, you are marketing and promoting CPR education.  If your “message” is not effective, people will not be interested.   Consider the following commonly seen messages promoting CPR.  Which do you think would be most effective in enlisting the public?

  • Get certified in CPR
  • Instruction in BLS for Healthcare Providers, CPR, First Aid, Bloodborne Pathogens, AED use, Emergency Oxygen Administration, Fire Safety, and Child & Babysitting Safety to the public and private sector
  • BLS every Wed or Sat
  • One quarter of Americans say they’ve been in a situation where someone needed CPR. If you were one of them, would you know what to do?
  • Is learning CPR important?  Just ask these people… she learned and he lived
  • There are 300,000 cases of cardiac arrest each year with 80% occurring in and around the home.  Only 5% survive.  Learn CPR.
  • The time to learn CPR was yesterday… tomorrow could be too late.

I highly recommend reading the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. We all want our ideas to be understood, remembered, and have a lasting impact; this book may help you to make your ideas more effective. They also discuss the concept of “The Curse of Knowledge,”  which is described as “knowing something too well, so that this knowledge actually inhibits our ability to communicate the essence of it to the audience.” This curse of knowledge can be seen in how we promote CPR to the public as well as in how we often deliver it!  I believe that the “curse of knowledge” is a villainous and self-defeating phenomenon that often shows up in our CPR training.

All of us in public safety should remain focused on broadening CPR education for the general public, and there are a number of new programs to help support this, such as the AHA’s “CPR Anytime for Family and Friends” kit and the advent of Hands Only CPR. The CPR Anytime kit makes it possible to deliver hands-on training to large groups of people in a matter of 20-30 minutes.  I am particularly supportive of this system, due to studies that demonstrated the  effectiveness of the kit being as good as the traditional three- to four-hour courses — 93% of trainees could still perform adequate chest compressions and successfully use an AED six months after learning it.

BO: It sounds like the answers to many of the current problems in addressing Sudden Cardiac Arrest are not medical in nature, but psychological. We’re moving away from questions like “what’s the ideal antiarrhythmic?” and towards questions like “how can we market CPR so people will learn it, teach it so they’ll remember it, and contextualize it so they’ll be willing to do it?”

The reason this shift is both possible and necessary is that there’s a tentative agreement in the literature that, to put it briefly, what works is the simple stuff. As Dr. Chris Colwell laid it out, when it comes to the good old ABCs, compressions are definitely important in arrest — but Airway and Breathing perhaps not so much, and the jury’s still out on exactly what role they should play. But we do know that early, consistent, deep chest compressions, at an appropriate rate, with minimal interruptions do make a difference, and it’s fortunate that this dovetails well with the “human interface” problem, where people have been telling us that bystander CPR was too complicated and scary. So the main goal now is to see how many people we can tag with this meme of “when someone looks dead, push on their chest” — and simpler memes work better.

But what about the role of EMS in this picture? On the one hand, we are trained professionals who have less room to complain about “scary complexity” in our care. On the other hand, we’re human beings too, and we seem to face some of the same problems as laymen — for instance, we bag too fast, we don’t push deep enough, and (as Dr. Paul Hinchey described) we have a nasty habit of interrupting our compressions for all sorts of reasons. Some people were predicting the 2010 AHA Guidelines would see a wholesale switch to compressions-only, even for healthcare providers. That didn’t happen, but is that the general direction we should be going? The clinical picture here isn’t clear — the literature has some support for minimally-interrupted compressions by EMS, but it seems unwise to start demanding that the BVM always stays in the cabinet when there’s no pulse. Respiratory etiologies of arrest — like drowning — make this clear enough. Still, as Dr. Paul Pepe said, would we rather have more oxygenated blood circulating less, or less oxygenated blood circulating more (with fewer interruptions to compressions to allow for breaths)? How far do you think we should take this trend of simplification in the professional setting? Does the “human element” mean that we need to cut things down on the professional side as well?

DH: I think that categorizing citizen CPR “issues” as psychological, psycho-social or as one of behavioral change is correct.

Existing education research suggests that attitudes and behaviors are different from cognitive knowledge and skills, and cannot be adequately addressed through discussion that is simply added or dropped into courses.  Perhaps future course design could better address these emotional perceptions. Ideally, the average citizen should want to know how to perform CPR and should feel comfortable about the idea of doing it in a real emergency, perhaps even before they ever give serious consideration to learning the skill itself. Increasing the number of people who are trained and willing to act is essential to improving the likelihood of survival.

EMS providers should be doing whatever is necessary to improve the quality of the resuscitation we provide. This will not be accomplished through initial training and education alone. Examining and optimizing our actual performance in the field is needed: improving resuscitation quality will require regular practice, real-world data collection, and an iterative process of measuring and improving.

Adding more sophisticated gadgets and more complex therapies may not yield the desired results, particularly if the fundamental problems have not been addressed.  This would support the general idea of simplification — but because of the diversity among EMS providers and agencies, it is difficult to make any broad statements.  Before adding “something else,” it may make sense to first ensure that we are doing the essentials well and consistently.

In addition to improving the quality of our own resuscitation, we as providers also have a unique opportunity to play a role in citizen CPR education.  I would even suggest that other public safety agencies, such as fire and police, share this responsibility as well.  If we truly believe that EMS is where public health and public safety intersect, then we should be making citizen engagement one of our priorities. There are a wide variety of “off the shelf” programs, products, and strategies that we can put into practice at the local level. Concepts like HEARTSafe Communities, HeartRescue, and other similar models for improving community response to cardiac arrest can provide guidance for implementation.

Desire and intellectualization alone are not enough to save lives.  Full implementation of the AHA recommendations will improve outcomes, but it requires the involvement of each provider, agency, and system to make resuscitation quality a priority and lead the effort to save lives.

BO: Paul Hinchey talked about CPR devices and adjuncts like the LUCAS and the Zoll AutoPulse. The current evidence seems to indicate that these devices are no more effective at increasing survival to discharge than perfect-quality manual CPR. However, when perfect-quality manual CPR is not possible, a mechanical device may have a role. In particular, Dr. Hinchey pointed out that if we begin to routinely accept codes directly into the cath lab for intra-arrest PCI, then transports prior to ROSC would become a valuable option in some situations, and due to the challenges of continuing CPR while packaging and transporting, mechanical devices might then come into their own.

This idea seems to mirror another idea involving “code drugs” like epinephrine and amiodarone. Currently there is no evidence that any of these drugs improve survival to hospital discharge — the only outcome that really matters. However, they may improve survival to hospital admission, and one argument for their continued use is that if we can keep people “alive” (neurologically intact and with a salvagable myocardium) until they get into the hospital, then perhaps later advanced care (such as catheterization, ECMO, therapeutic hypothermia, or other future remedies) might be able to get them back out again. In such cases, even an intervention that only supports part of the Chain of Survival might have ultimate value if something else can provide the last few links.

In any case, do you believe devices that “replace” the rescuer in providing the major components of CPR can have a role? Assume that, as have tentatively found, they do the job no better than an ideal human, but also no worse. With all the challenges we’re encountering in getting really consistent performance from our rescuers, are there some situations where we should simply cut our losses and turn the job over to a machine? Obviously this won’t always be possible — unless every citizen carries their own Thumper — but we could move towards a point where every EMS and first response unit carried such a device and made attaching it a priority.

DH: A variety of devices have been developed and promoted in an effort to enhance perfusion during cardiac arrest. Generally speaking, these devices require more personnel, training, and equipment, or apply only to specific settings. Although the idea of using technology to improve perfusion during arrest is indeed intriguing, I think it is important to remember that the application and use of these devices also has a potential to delay or interrupt CPR.  Since we do know that delays and interruptions negatively impact survival, agencies and rescuers choosing to use these devices need to be acutely aware of this downside, and take steps (such as appropriate training) to minimize potential interruptions in chest compressions and/or defibrillation.

To quote the current AHA-ECC and CPR Guidelines: “To date, no adjunct has consistently been shown to be superior to standard conventional (manual) CPR for out-of-hospital basic life support, and no device other than a defibrillator has consistently improved long-term survival from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.”  Also, “Class IIb recommendations are identified by terms such as “can be considered” or “may be useful” or “usefulness/effectiveness is unknown or unclear or not well established.”

High-quality CPR is fundamental to the success of any “ACLS” type of intervention. We should place the highest priority on performing good chest compressions with adequate rate, depth and complete recoil. Interruptions in chest compressions and unintentional hyperventilation must be avoided. In particular, for patients with shockable rhythms, defibrillation should be delivered with minimal interruption in chest compressions.

To date, increased rates of ROSC associated with ACLS drug therapy have not translated into long-term survival benefit… but perhaps improved quality of CPR, combined with advances in post-resuscitation care, will provide additional insight regarding the role of drugs in optimizing outcomes.

I think it is also appropriate to consider the process of organ and tissue procurement in an effort to minimize waiting time and alleviate suffering for patients qualifying for organ transplant. In my opinion, there is room to improve efforts relating to the ethical procurement of organ and tissue donations.

Based on what I know, and in my opinion, mechanical devices can’t replace a rescuer in providing the major components of CPR.  They may have a role in certain circumstances and settings, but there is a clear and continued need for human hands on the chest. Adding a mechanical device will not, by itself, solve CPR quality issues. Additionally, without careful implementation, these devices could potentially hinder rather than help the CPR process.  Incorporating them is fine and could be very appropriate in certain settings, but caution and careful implementation is needed.

BO: Thanks for bringing that up; we often don’t think about CPR’s role in maintaining viable organs and tissue for transplant.

You mentioned post-resuscitation care. One of the points Dr. John Freese made is that, when it comes to practical implementation of post-ROSC therapeutic hypothermia protocols, we’ve found that starting hypothermia prior to ED arrival can be beneficial. This isn’t necessarily for clinical reasons, but instead because hypothermic therapy already initiated when the patient arrives at the hospital is very likely to be continued in the hospital — whereas if it is not yet initiated, the patient may or may not end up being cooled, depending on how aggressively and consistently that facility is applying a hypothermia protocol. In other words, field treatment in this case is playing an economic or policy role, by letting the EMS side say to the hospital side: “We’ve already started this beneficial therapy — you’re not going to terminate it, are you?” And in fact, if they’re still reluctant to get on board, it becomes reasonable for us to divert these patients to other facilities instead, applying further economic pressure.

This is an example of a change in the standard of care being pushed through by a “grassroots” type of influence, as opposed to a top-down fiat which may take much longer to occur (due to institutional inertia or financial concerns). Many of our readers may have experienced frustration with the slow pace of change in their own systems. You’ve done a lot of work with implementing large-scale adoption of new training and procedures in different communities; in your experience, what’s the best way to approach this? Is it top-down, by seeking buy-in from administrators and medical directors at the highest level, or is it from the trenches, by finding broad support for the initiative from clinical staff or even from the public?

DH: An interesting perspective and suggestion, Brandon. I think you did an excellent job of framing up the subject. Improving systems of care for stroke, STEMI, and cardiac arrest patients can be very complex, to say the least. Increasingly I am finding that EMS can play an essential role in developing an integrated systems approach to optimizing response, care, and outcomes.

Yes, Dr. Freese made a compelling suggestion concerning the implementation of EMS therapeutic hypothermia protocols, and his point about continuity of hypothermic therapy is one that I have also observed. This is a great example of a practice being “imported” from the out-of-hospital environment to the hospital setting.

It is difficult if not impossible to make a single recommendation that will hold true everywhere. However, EMS providers, leaders, and agencies will be integral components of any localized strategies of care.

Multi-party coalitions involving EMS field providers, representatives from local prehospital and hospital agencies, and emergency physicians as well as cardiologists can help coordinate strategies for improving cardiac arrest outcomes within a region. This can involve not only therapeutic hypothermia, but the entire spectrum of issues associated with a comprehensive system of care for these patients.

In order to effectively address the issues, such coalitions need a thorough and honest understanding of what is working and what is not. This requires an examination of all system components and how they interact. Each member’s input can help in defining and framing the overall issues, as well as in the development of strategies to yield life-saving results.

Unless a system is hopelessly obstinate,  changing and improving standards of care through a combination of “grassroots” influence as well as a top-down approach may yield the most desirable results. Indeed, in my experience, this has been the most effective means of implementing change. Programs like Mission: Lifeline, HEARTSafe, and Heart Rescue can also offer good frameworks for developing this type of process.

BO: Dave, it’s been a pleasure; I hope we can chat again soon. One of the best things the internet has done for EMS is to bring together widespread people with different ideas from different places, but with many of the same problems. My thanks to FDNY for hosting a great (and affordable!) conference, and to yourself for taking some time to discuss it.

Any parting words?

DH: The pleasure has been all mine!

Additional remarks:

  • An agency or system’s ability to resuscitate VF cardiac arrest can be an excellent indicator of its overall clinical quality.
  • There is no single change that will dramatically improve cardiac arrest survival. A combination of approaches, including improved recognition, willingness of citizens to perform CPR, telephone CPR (via EMD), rapid defibrillation strategies, really good BLS, and effective post-resuscitation care are all needed to truly move the “survival needle.”
  • Data collection and an iterative process of measurement and improvement is important in every system.
  • Desire alone is not enough to yield results.  Real effort is required to improve recognition and response. Public safety agencies, EMS included, are well positioned to take the lead in this drive for improvement.
  • Increased probability of citizen CPR, implementation of AHA guideline recommendations, and improved quality of resuscitation from all rescuers is what is needed in order to save lives.

Experience: Sweating the Small Stuff

Dr. Weingart at Emcrit gave a brief but excellent podcast about “Logistics vs. Strategy.” Go have a listen and then report back.

His point was that it’s not enough to decide what the best course of action for a patient may be. Most of our training and planning is focused on this — what’s the diagnosis? The plan? The treatment? But this is only half the battle. In a war, this would amount to our strategy, and wars aren’t won by strategy alone. You have to implement your strategy through sound execution of the basic fundamentals of logistics and tactics — keeping everyone fueled and fed, maintaining the vehicles, setting up supply lines, and so on.

In medicine, the same problem applies. It’s one thing to say, “I’ll C-spine, assist with ventilations, and transport.” That’s your plan. But can you make it work? It may be easy, but it may be hard. All three of those items — immobilize, bag, and hoof it — are potentially difficult skills, and how they occur will depend on details like the patient, the environment, and the circumstances. I know you can say “assist with ventilations,” but if I hand you a BVM and a mannequin, can you do it? Now, can you do it an a real human? How about this human who’s tied to a board and being maneuvered through a house? Oh, you haven’t tried that before? Well, go ahead and figure it out. But wouldn’t it be nice if you’d done that before the sick patient needed it?

Experience is where we learn this. We talked about how experience involves learning how textbook clinical events actually present in real patients; experience also involves learning how textbook skills are performed in real patients. You may be able to articulate how to apply a cervical collar — in fact, it’s a very simple process, so I hope you can. But until you’ve actually tried to do it, can you flip up all the right plastic bits, and insert Tab A into Slot B? Can you hold it in the right hand while securing it with the other? Can you do it from the other side? How about from behind? While standing and kneeling? Heck, do you know where the collars are?

You might get all of it right the first time you do it. Or you might fumble, but it’s easy enough, so you figure it out and the second time, you’ll have mastered it. Or maybe it takes a few times. Or maybe it’s a difficult skill like intubation, and you’ll need dozens of attempts before you’ve made all the mistakes. This is the process of developing experience. Even if you do get it the first time, until that happens, you won’t know whether you can do it or not.

But you can speed up your experience by doing the right kind of learning. Hopefully you know the basic functioning of your equipment, but how often are our situations in the field straightforward? How many times have you seen a veteran provider pull off some trick that you never imagined was possible, just because he understood some subtlety of the equipment or of pathophysiology? Have you ever used towels to modify a carseat for a small infant? Is it safe to do so? What’s the exact maximum load weight of your stretcher, and how dangerous is it to exceed that? If you trim the length of the prongs on a nasal cannula, will it compromise its effectiveness? If I took away or broke half of your equipment, could you make do with the other half? Is your portable radio waterproof? Do bloodstains come out of your uniform beanie?

You’ll learn it all eventually. But asking the questions ahead of time will make you a better provider sooner.