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I have completed bits of my EM training from India. Currently I am boarded with credentials from Christian Medical College, Vellore and also from the prestigious Royal College of Emergency Medicine, UK.  I am currently working in London as an A&E doctor, trying to appreciate the differences in the practise and culture of Emergency Medicine across different healthcare systems. I have always been an avid FOAMed supporter because FOAMed played an indispensable role during the days of my initial training. Through this blog, I aspire to disseminate knowledge and stay up to date with the EM literature. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Trauma Calls and Pan CT - Are we doing it the right way?

Pan CT is almost becoming a norm for trauma, regardless of examination findings. Major Trauma Centers love it. Often patients fit into the "trauma activation" criteria but are stable enough to walk into the ED, look very well and have a completely unremarkable exam. 

Do we really need to activate "trauma call" and involve an anaesthetist, orthopod and surgeon for a patient who walked into the Emergency Department or should we just observe them for a few hours? 

Is it mandatory to scan them if they alert and oriented, look well, are hemodynamically stable but meet a significant injury criteria?

Well, every scenario is different and "pan scanning" and "trauma activation" depends entirely on your gestalt in addition to vital signs and exam findings. A 90 yo on NOACs can develop a Subdural and massive hemothorax due to fall from 3 feet height whereas a 30 year old may not sustain any injuries on falling from a height of 10 feet. My threshold to activate trauma for elderly is much low as minor falls can lead to significant injuries in older adults. But I always get perturbed when I see a patient being discharged (especially young patients) from resuscitation room after a pan-scan! 

There are plenty of other issues with pan scanning:

1. Clinically Insignificant Injuries
We might end up picking clinically insignificant injuries and then ponder what to do with them? Do they just need admission or follow up or a delayed intervention? More importantly, this adds to patient anxiety, additional use of resources. Arguments offered by the proponents of Pan CT are "we never know" and "what if we miss something" etc. Unfortunately, we live in a "no miss" culture and it can be a task to explain this to a distressed patient especially in case of a mishap. But very frequently, patients do understand the pros and cons of radiation and happy to accept minimal risk instead of radiation. Shared decision making (in low risk cases) and safety netting is the way to go rather than pan-scanning. And also remember, clinical examination still remains superior to pan-scans. With all this said, hard findings on exam should certainly mandate a relevant imaging. 

2. Radiation 
More scanning leads to more radiation exposure and higher chances of developing a malignancy in future. Click here to calculate risk of malignancy with various imaging studies. 

3. Skipping examination because we are doing a  CT
Sadly, CT Scanning is now become an excuse for not performing clinical examination. Working under immense pressures of timelines, scans are now being ordered without even evaluating a patient. More than often, physicians are correct in making these decisions but medicine is being practice the other way round where we see the blood results/imaging first and then greet the patient. 

As soon as you enter the room, the patient asks - Is my scan normal? A positive nod cuts the interview very short and saves our time but at the cost of irradiation. Clinical exam is then performed only as a formality. 

Scanning reassures the patients psychologically as well as the treating physician from a medico-legal standpoint. If we are likely to get sued for missing clinically insignificant injuries, then aren't we equally liable to land up in trouble for ordering an unwarranted pan-Scan. 

4. Holding life-saving treatment 
It is unacceptable to hold life saving intervention awaiting CT scan. For instance, decision to insert a chest drain is based on clinical exam and CXR/USG. Subcutaneous emphysema is enough to justify a chest tube insertion even if CXR does not show a clear Pneumothorax. Never withhold a life saving treatment awaiting a CT scan. CT scanning rarely changes the management of blunt chest trauma. In an ideal world, any unstable (hypotensive) trauma should go to OR based on the presumed site of blood loss. Outcomes can be dramatically improved if the Surgeons/Orthopods liaise well with each other. 

CT scans are not a part of primary survey in trauma. As a clinician, you must assess ABCDE at bedside and ensure hemodynamic stability prior to scanning. 

5. Cost and Utilisation of Resources
Pan-Scanning can cost anywhere between 20,000-30,000 INR at a private hospital in India. In government run healthcare systems, the issue is wastage of time and resources. 

The difference between physicians and other healthcare providers is that physicians use clinical judgement, weigh the pros and cons before taking a decision unlike most other allied healthcare workers who are trained to follow the protocols. We all know that everyone brought in with a "high risk" mechanism of injury may not need triple immobilisation, 2 wide bore IVs and Rectal Exams. Protocols are always made with a valid rationale behind them and should always have some degree of flexibility based on the clinical acumen of treating physician. 

Guidelines are made to guide us, not to be followed as hard and fast rules. 

Patients who require pan-CT should be carefully selected based on gestalt, mechanism, vital signs and exam findings and not just based on the mechanism. Also, consider pan-scanning for those with difficult body habitus and altered mental status (of course with some clinical judgement). We need to be more responsible when we use the power of technology and make sure everything is done keeping in mind the best interests of our patients. There is something grossly wrong if we are frequently discharging patients from ED after pan scanning (This means we suspected multiple external or internal injuries on examination, but found none on Scanning). Consider observation and good safety netting in patients with low likelihood of injuries. Likewise, Trauma Call Activation needs to be individualised and we should not be blinded by the "high risk mechanism". 

Further Reading:

  1. Surendran A, et al. Systematic review of the benefits and harms of whole-body computed tomography in the early management of multitrauma patients: are we getting the whole picture? J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2014 Apr; 76(4):1122-30.
  2. Holmes JF, Wisner DH, McGahan JP, et al. Clinical prediction rules for identifying adults at very low risk for intra-abdominal injuries after blunt trauma. Ann Emerg Med. 2009; 54:575-584. 
  3. http://stemlynsblog.org/jc-always-need-whole-body-ct-trauma-st-emlyns/
  4. http://thesgem.com/2017/06/sgem181-did-you-ever-have-to-make-up-your-mind-pan-scan-or-leave-other-scans-behind/
  5. http://www.thebottomline.org.uk/summaries/em/react-2/
  6. Kroczek EKWieners GSteffen I, et al
    Non-traumatic incidental findings in patients undergoing whole-body computed tomography at initial emergency admission
  7. Immediate total-body CT scanning versus conventional imaging and selective CT scanning in patients with severe trauma (REACT-2): a randomised controlled trial Sierink, Joanne C et al. The Lancet , Volume 388 , Issue 10045 , 673 - 683

    Posted by:

     Lakshay Chanana
     Speciality Doctor
     Northwick Park Hospital
     Department of Emergency Medicine



  1. Very informative.But how can a patient feel assured that he is going through the correct diagnosis does he have have any say in the procedures

    1. Some hospitals offer a pamphlet explaining the pros and cons of going through radiation. A lot also depends on the mindset of patients.
      1. Physicians might give them options to treat/diagnose an ailment and patients get to choose what they want.
      2. Very often, patients want their physicians to make all the decisions on their behalf.

      Patients always have a say in diagnosis as well as treatment