Intern Survival Guide – ER Edition

Intern Survival Guide - ER Edition
In some parts of the world, Internships consist of rotating in different departments of a hospital over a period of one or two years depending on the location. In others, interns are first-year Emergency Medicine residents. Whichever country you practice in, an emergency rotation may be mandatory to get the most exposure, and often the most hands-on. Often, junior doctors (including myself)  find ourselves confused and lost as to what is expected of us, and how we can learn and work efficiently in a fast-paced environment such as the ER. It can be overwhelming as you may be expected to know and do a lot of things such as taking a short yet precise history, doing a quick but essential physical exam and performing practical procedures. I’ve gathered some tips from fellow interns and myself, from what we experienced, what we did right, what we could’ve done better and what we wish we knew before starting. These tips may have some points specific to your Emergency Medicine Rotation, but overall can be applied in any department you work in.
  • First things first – Always try to be on time. Try to reach your work a couple of minutes before your shift starts, so you have enough time to wear your PPE and feel comfortable before starting your shift.
  • Know your patients! Unlike other departments, ER does not always have rounds, and you do not know any of the patients beforehand, but it always helps to get a handover from the previous shift, and know if any of the patients have any results, treatment plans or discharges pending, to prevent chaos later on!
  • Always be around, inform your supervising doctor when you want to go for a break, and always volunteer to do more than what you’re asked for. The best way to learn is to make yourself known, ask the nurses to allow you to practice IV Cannulation, Intramuscular injections, anything and everything that goes around the department, remember the ER is the best place to learn.
  • Admit when you feel uncomfortable doing something, or if you’ve done a mistake. This makes you appear trustworthy and everyone respects someone who can own up to their mistake and keeps their patients first.
  • Breath sounds and pulses need to be checked in every patient!
  • Address pain before anything else, if their pain is in control, the patient will be able to answer your questions better.
  • Never think any work is below you, and this is one thing which I admired about ED physicians, you do not need someone to bring the Ultrasound machine to you, you do not need someone to plug in the machine, you do not need someone to place the blood pressure cuff if you can do it yourself. Time is essential, and if you’re the first person seeing the patient, do all that you can to make their care as efficient as possible.
  • Care for patients because you want to, and not for show. Often junior doctors get caught up in the fact that they are being evaluated and try to “look” like the best version of themselves. While it may be true, remember this is the year where you are shaping yourself for the future, and starting off by placing your patients first, doing things for their benefit will not only make it a habit, the right people will always notice and will know when you do things to provide patient-focused care, or when you do them to show that you are providing patient-focused care.
  • Teamwork will help you grow. Not everything in life has to be a competition, try to work with your colleagues, share knowledge, take chances on doing things, learn together, trying to win against everyone else only makes an easier task even more stressful and can endanger lives.
  • Learn the names of the people you work with! In the ER, you may across different people on each and every shift and it may be difficult to remember everyone’s names, but it’s always nice to try, and addressing people by their names instantly makes you more likable and pleasant to work with!
  • Keep track of your patients and make a logbook of all the cases you see and all the procedures you observe/assist in/perform. This not only helps in building your portfolio, but also in going back and reading about the vast variety of cases you must have seen.
  • Always ask yourself what could the differential diagnosis be? How would you treat the patient?
  • Ask questions! No question is worth not asking, clear your doubts. Remember to not ask too much just for the sake of looking interested, but never shy away from asking, you’d be surprised to see how many doctors would be willing to answer your queries.
  • Don’t make up facts and information. If you forgot to ask something in history, admit the mistake, and it’s never too late, you can almost always go back and ask. It’s quite normal to forget when you’re trying to gather a lot of information in a short span of time.
  • Check up on the patients from time to time. The first consultation till the time you hand them the discharge papers or refer them to a specialty shouldn’t be the only time you see the patient. Go in between whenever you get a chance, ask them if they feel better, if they need something. Sometimes just by having someone asking their health and mental wellbeing is just what they need.
  • Take breaks, drink water and know your limits. Do not overwork yourself. Stretching yourself till you break is not a sign of strength.
  • Sleep! Sleep well before every shift. Your sleep cycles will be affected, but sleeping when you can is the best advice you can get.
  • Read! Pick your favorite resource and hold onto it. A page of reading every day can go a long way. The IEM book can be a perfect resource that you can refer to even during your shifts! (https://iem-student.org/2019/04/17/download-now-iem-book-ibook-and-pdf/)
  • Practice as many practical skills as you can. The ER teaches you more than a book can, and instead of looking at pictures, you can actually learn on the job. Practice ultrasound techniques, suturing, ECG interpretation, see as many radiology images as you can, learn to distinguish between what’s normal and what’s not.
  • Last but most important, Enjoy! The ER rotation is usually amongst the best rotations an intern goes through, one where you actually feel like you are a doctor and have an impact on someone’s life! So make the best of it.
If you are a medical student starting your emergency medicine rotation, make sure to read this post for your emergency medicine clerkship, and be a step ahead! https://iem-student.org/2019/10/04/how-to-make-the-most-of-your-em-clerkship/  
Cite this article as: Sumaiya Hafiz, UAE, "Intern Survival Guide – ER Edition," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, May 26, 2021, https://iem-student.org/2021/05/26/intern-survival-guide-er-edition/, date accessed: December 3, 2022

Recent Blog Posts By Sumaiya Hafiz

Knee Jerk, Shotgun and Kitchen Sink in Emergency Medicine

Knee Jerk, Shotgun and Kitchen Sink in Emergency Medicine

For a trainee in EM, it is useful to know about three types of cognitive practice that require caution.

While a knee jerk reaction may sometimes save time, a shotgun investigation may improve billing and a kitchen sink therapy may create the illusion of therapeutic rigor, arguably that’s all there is to it.

In reality, there is not much true value to any of these three missed approaches.

We will look at each one with a few examples and then briefly discuss below.

Knee Jerk

When I was rotating in the ED as an MS4, a visiting EM attending once told me that “adding a Type and Rh should become a knee jerk” for any patient with vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy. Whether or not taking the extra 30 seconds to scroll through the EMR for a previously documented Rh likely to be on file is a better strategy, this one is fairly simple.

Not all of our knee jerk reactions are equally simple or harmless.

I have seen adenosine being pushed before one could say “Mama” for anything from sinus tach to atrial flutter and A-fib with RVR: paramedics, physicians and even unsupervised nurses all being equally guilty. Why? Because a sustained heart rate above 180 is scary to some. And the reflex is to do something quickly because we don’t like to remain scared.

Nursing staff going straight for IV placement while forgetting not only the basic ABCs of resuscitation but even to disrobe the patient is another example. Starting any patient at 100% oxygen saturation who is short of breath on nasal cannula oxygen is yet another.

We like to do what we are trained to do well and/or what is easy. Our brains then compel us to prioritize doing it.

Once my ED team halted a verbal order for a whopping dose of colchicine blurted out to nursing by a careless consulting cardiology fellow – the patient had mentioned his ankle pain to the fellow in passing. The man was in acute renal failure and ended up with a septic ankle joint diagnosed later. Knee jerk is in part responsible for well-perpetuated ED mental formulas such as “gout = colchicine”, “fever = paracetamol”, “wheezing = albuterol” and “hypotension = 2 liter IV fluid bolus”.

The knee jerk is how we pick from our favorite antibiotics and how we generally prescribe, how we diagnose and order things on lobby and triage patients and how we even decide on CT scans and dispositions. Frequently, our hospitalist medicine colleagues will utilize the same reflex and unnecessarily or prematurely consult specialists.

On occasion, when the arrow released via a knee jerk reaction hits the bull’s eye, it feels and looks great. Knee jerk, unfortunately, is also how we assume, stereotype, over-simplify, ignore and ultimately miss.

Shotgun

This one does not have to be shot from the hip, though it certainly looks cooler that way. Often this is done thoughtfully, with a pseudo-scientific aroma to it.

I was on my MS3 internal medicine rotation when one day, the dreaded ED handed us an elderly female with a congratulatory thick paper chart, a bouquet of vague complaints and no clear diagnosis. When I asked my senior resident what we should do, the answer was a shoulder shrug and a confident “Lab ‘er up!”.

Shotgunning is not just about shooting out labs in the dark, however. It usually refers to a much wider “strategy” (actually, a lack thereof) of checking anyone for “anything” so as to not miss “something”.

Consider an ED evaluation of a headache involving some component of facial pain. Let’s order a migraine cocktail, CT and CTA of the head and neck, ESR to check for temporal arteritis; and when we find nothing, let’s do antibiotics in case of possible dental caries, otitis, mastoiditis or sinusitis. Sounds pretty thorough and terrific, doesn’t it? In fact, many patients would tend to think so. Clearly, after all that, we just could not miss something real badTM. We should remember that in EM you are worth every test that you order.

Hyperlaboratoremia and panscanosis are not the only clinical manifestations of the shotgun approach.

Though in all places, it is well-intended, there is a more buried shotgun in standardized chest pain workups, ED triage scales, pre-conceived clinical pathways and universal screenings than you may think.

Kitchen Sink

One might say that kitchen sink is the therapeutic twin of shotgun diagnostics, though one does not need to stem from the other.

The kitchen sink is how you and I treat most non-threatening and hence not easily identifiable ED rashes. As one of my professors once said: the rule of dermatology is that “if it is dry, use a wetting agent, if it is wet, use a drying agent, plus steroids and antibiotics for everyone”.

At its core, any kitchen sink approach violates two key pillars of modern medicine – evidence-based practice and personalized therapy.

Another example is the kitchen sink phase of resuscitation in a soon to be aborted CPR effort. While in the beginning, we do tend to follow certain parameters and algorithms, towards the end and well into the “futile” stage of CPR remedies like calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, second and third anti-arrhythmic and so on all inevitably flow one after another regardless of the suspected cause of cardiac arrest or objective facts known.

While benign rashes are benign, and futile CPR is futile, most of the kitchen sink does not involve such obvious extremes. In fact, some of it is perfectly legitimized and even justified – have you ever thought of what “broad-spectrum antibiotics” in sepsis really implies?

Reasons For Need To Know

Why is knowing about the knee jerk, the shotgun and the kitchen sink ahead of time important?

First, the cognitive action patterns described are unavoidable and inescapable. It is precise because we will not be able to fully stop using all three on occasion, that we should know about them ahead of time.

Second, there is something positive and well-thought-out corresponding to the other side of each of the three behaviors:

Fundamentally, knee-jerk reactions rest on pattern recognition as the predominant cognitive pathway at work – something that physicians start to rely upon more and more as they mature. While risking the error of premature diagnostic closure (among others), pattern recognition does save time and resources. This mode is why, as some studies suggest, senior-most providers may be more effective in triage.

On the opposing side of the shotgun coin are the well-accepted mantras of keeping one’s differentials broad and of thinking outside the box. Such forced mental efforts help avoid anchoring among other cognitive errors.

Last, kitchen sink elements may indeed be acceptable in salvage type of situations or in uncharted waters, given multiple paucities in our scientific evidence and in our full understanding of physiologic processes. In such select cases, we humbly admit our limits and hope that something unknown may work at the last minute, while there is no further harm that can be done.

It would be a mistake, however, to confuse each of the positives described with the three patterns we started with when taken in their pure form.

Third, the limitations and harms encountered by not keeping the three tendencies in check are real and immediate:

  • Knee-jerk reactions do not yield beneficial results when the situation encountered is new and principally different from those experienced before, yet it has the external appearance of something familiar. Think of COVID.
  • Shotgun-galore practices subject multiple patients to unnecessary tests and to potentially harmful procedures and interventions that inevitably follow, further inflating the costs of healthcare.
  • Perpetuating myths and unmerited traditional practices, kitchen sink therapies also coach our patients into expecting both the unreasonable and the unnecessary for the next visit, undermining any accepted standard of care at its very core.

What Next?

A more in-depth discussion of all three phenomena presented would indeed be appropriate, including an investigation into any viable alternatives.

For now, I encourage all trainees to look further into the general and well-researched topic of cognitive errors in emergency medicine. 

We should also all strive to practice based on best available evidence and not to be coerced into questionable behaviors by external pressures such as performance metrics that may lurk as false substitutes for quality.

References and Further Reading

  • Frye KL, Adewale A, Martinez Martinez CJ, Mora Montero C. Cognitive Errors and Risks Associated with Provider Handoffs. Cureus. 2018;10(10):e3442. Published 2018 Oct 12. doi:10.7759/cureus.3442
  • Oliver G, Oliver G, Body R. BET 2: Poor evidence on whether teaching cognitive debiasing, or cognitive forcing strategies, lead to a reduction in errors attributable to cognition in emergency medicine students or doctors. Emerg Med J. 2017;34(8):553-554. doi:10.1136/emermed-2017-206976.2
  • Schnapp BH, Sun JE, Kim JL, Strayer RJ, Shah KH. Cognitive error in an academic emergency department. Diagnosis (Berl). 2018;5(3):135-142. doi:10.1515/dx-2018-0011
Cite this article as: Anthony Rodigin, USA, "Knee Jerk, Shotgun and Kitchen Sink in Emergency Medicine," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, July 20, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/07/20/knee-jerk-shotgun-and-kitchen-sink-in-emergency-medicine/, date accessed: December 3, 2022

Triads in Medicine – Rapid Review for Medical Students

triads in medicine

One of the most convenient ways of learning and remembering the main components of disease and identifying a medical condition on an exam are Triads, and medical students/interns/residents swear by them.

Be it a question during rounds, a multiple-choice exam question to be solved, or even in medical practice, the famous triads help physicians recall important characteristics and clinical features of a disease or treatment in an instant.

Since exam season is here, this could serve as a rapid review to recall the most common medical conditions.

While there are a vast number of triads/pentads available online, I have listed the most important (high-yy) ones that every student would be asked about at least once in the duration of their course.

1) Lethal Triad also known as The Trauma Triad of Death
Hypothermia + Coagulopathy + Metabolic Acidosis

2) Beck’s Triad of Cardiac Tamponade
Muffled heart sounds + Distended neck veins + Hypotension

3) Virchow’s Triad – Venous Thrombosis
Hypercoagulability + stasis + endothelial damage

4) Charcot’s Triad – Ascending Cholangitis
Fever with rigors + Right upper quadrant pain + Jaundice

5) Cushing’s Triad – Raised Intracranial Pressure
Bradycardia + Irregular respiration + Hypertension

6) Triad of Ruptured Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
Severe Abdominal/Back Pain + Hypotension + Pulsatile Abdominal mass

7) Reactive Arthritis
Can’t See (Conjunctivitis) + Can’t Pee (Urethritis) + Can’t Climb a Tree (Arthritis)

8) Triad of Opioid Overdose
Pinpoint pupils + Respiratory Depression + CNS Depression

9) Hakims Triad – Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Gait Disturbance + Dementia + Urinary Incontinence

10) Horner’s Syndrome Triad
Ptosis + Miosis + Anydrosis

11) Mackler’s Triad – Oesophageal Perforation (Boerhaave Syndrome)
Vomiting + Lower Thoracic Pain + Subcutaneous Emphysema

12) Pheochromocytoma
Palpitations + Headache + Perspiration (Diaphoresis)

13) Leriche Syndrome
Buttock claudication + Impotence + Symmetrical Atrophy of bilateral lower extremities

14) Rigler’s Triad – Gallstone ileus
Gallstones + Pneumobilia + Small bowel obstruction

15) Whipple’s Triad – Insulinoma
Hypoglycemic attack + Low glucose + Resolving of the attack on glucose administration

16) Meniere’s Disease
Tinnitus + Vertigo + Hearing loss

17) Wernicke’s Encephalopathy- Thiamine Deficiency
Confusion + Ophthalmoplegia + Ataxia

18) Unhappy Triad – Knee Injury
Injury to Anterior Cruciate Ligament + Medial collateral ligament + Medial or Lateral Meniscus

19) Henoch Schonlein Purpura
Purpura + Abdominal pain + Joint pain

20) Meigs Syndrome
Benign ovarian tumor + pleural effusion + ascites

21) Felty’s Syndrome
Rheumatoid Arthritis + Splenomegaly + Neutropenia

22) Cauda Equina Syndrome
Low back pain + Bowel/Bladder Dysfunction + Saddle Anesthesia

23) Meningitis
Fever + Headache + Neck Stiffness

24) Wolf Parkinson White Syndrome
Delta Waves + Short PR Interval + Wide QRS Complex

25) Neurogenic Shock
Bradycardia + Hypotension + Hypothermia

Further Reading

Cite this article as: Sumaiya Hafiz, UAE, "Triads in Medicine – Rapid Review for Medical Students," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, June 12, 2020, https://iem-student.org/2020/06/12/triads-in-medicine/, date accessed: December 3, 2022

Core EM Clerkship Topics

Core EM Clerkship Topics

In the last ten years, there are few published undergraduate emergency medicine curriculum recommendations (Hobgood et al., 2009; Manthey et al., 2010; Penciner et al., 2013; Santen et al., 2014).

Current undergraduate curriculum trends recommend longitudinal and horizontal integration, and the topic lists related to emergency medicine are extensive for medical students.

In this post, we provide International Federation for Emergency Medicine and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine’s recommendations (Manthey et al., 2010; Hobgood et al., 2009).

The chosen topics can ideally be re-discussed in the clerkship during the senior years of medical school.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Altered mental status
  • Cardiac arrest and arrhythmias
  • Chest pain
  • GI bleeding
  • Headache
  • Multiple trauma
  • Poisoning
  • Respiratory distress
  • Shock

Because the length of the rotations can vary between institutions, the topics list can be extended according to the length of the clerkship and local needs.

References and Further Reading

  • Hobgood, C., Anantharaman, V., Bandiera, G., Cameron, P., Halperin, P., Holliman, J., … & International Federation for Emergency Medicine. (2009). International Federation for Emergency Medicine model curriculum for medical student education in emergency medicine. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine, 11(4), 349-354.
  • Manthey, D. E., Ander, D. S., Gordon, D. C., Morrissey, T., Sherman, S. C., Smith, M. D., … & Clerkship Directors in Emergency Medicine (CDEM) Curriculum Revision Group. (2010). Emergency medicine clerkship curriculum: an update and revision. Academic Emergency Medicine, 17(6), 638-643.
  • Penciner, R. (2009). Emergency medicine preclerkship observerships: evaluation of a structured experience. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine, 11(3), 235-239.
  • Santen, S. A., Peterson, W. J., Khandelwal, S., House, J. B., Manthey, D. E., & Sozener, C. B. (2014). Medical student milestones in emergency medicine. Academic Emergency Medicine, 21(8), 905-911.

How to make the most of your EM Clerkship

How to make the most of your EM Clerkship

Emergency Medicine has something for everyone!

Starting the Emergency Medicine (EM) Clerkship is one of the most exciting times of any medical student’s life, regardless of whichever specialty they plan on specializing in because EM has something for everyone. It is like solving all those questions that begin with ‘A patient presents to the Emergency Department with…’ but in reality, at a faster pace and with more tricky situations. This can make students feel overwhelmed, as they find themselves juggling between books and resources as to which one to follow or which topics to learn, and I am here for just that! To share the approach that helps many students get the hang of EM and make the most of their time in one of the best learning environments of any hospital.

Prepare a list of common conditions

The basic approach would be first to jot down all the problems you can think of.

Here is a list to help you get started: Core EM Clerkship Topics

There are problems that you may be heard a lot such as Chest Pain, Heart Failure, Shock (and it’s types), Acute Coronary Syndrome, Sepsis, Pulmonary edema, Respiratory Failure, Coma, Stroke, Hypoglycemia, Subarachnoid Hemorrhage, Fractures, Head Trauma, Status Epilepticus, Diabetic Ketoacidosis, and Anaphylaxis.

As every doctor you meet will always say, common is common, so always focus on things that you have heard and seen most about, read about them, make notes on their clinical features, differentials, investigations and management. Most importantly, do not forget to read about the ABCDE approach in every critically ill and trauma patient.

Brush up on your history taking and examination skills

Know what to ask and when to ask. Patients in the ED are not in their most comfortable composure, so try to practice and frame questions that provide you with just enough information to make a diagnosis in the least possible time.
The same goes for examination, never forget the basics of examination and their importance. Practice examination as much as you can and you will automatically see it come to you naturally at a faster pace. Also, do not forget focused history and physical examination is a cornerstone of EM practice and saves a lot of time.
Where investigations can help you exclude a differential, 80% of your diagnosis will be built from what you ask, what you see and what you feel. Keep in mind that if you are not thinking or looking for something, you will not see and find it. So, be suspicious of life, organ and limb-threatening problems.

Read about common ED procedures

ABG, Intubation, Central Lines, FAST Scan, Suturing, Catheter and Cannula placement are some of them. As a medical student, you will probably not be required to perform any, but it is good to have an idea about the procedures when you see them. If you can practice, then that is even better, ask a resident or intern to show you how and you can have a go yourself under their supervision! Remember, “see one, do one, teach one.”

Watch videos on examination, interpreting X-rays, & procedural skills

Youtube is an asset when it comes to medical education, make good use of it. There are also plenty of videos on the iEM website that you can watch and learn from.

Interpretation of ECG & X-rays

Google is your best friend for this! You have the list of common conditions, all you need to do is a google search on the most common ECG findings and x-rays in medical emergencies and you will be good to go. You can also always learn these from the doctors around you in the ED, as the more you see and try to interpret, the better you get at differentiating the normal from abnormal.

Books

Before the rotation

Before the rotation, read a review book, recall your basic knowledge from internal medicine/family medicine and surgery because EM almost covers all of the acute problems of those fields. Moreover, do not forget, EM is an independent specialty and has its’ own textbooks.

iEM Clerkship book is a very good source to get started with! Download Now! – iEM Book (iBook and pdf)

If you are the kind, who likes solving questions, the Pretest Emergency Medicine is a great source.

During the rotation

During the rotation – Learning what you see is the best way to keep things in your long term memory. After your shift ends, and you go home, get some rest, recall the cases of the day and read about them on Up to Date/ Medscape or any resource that you prefer, this will help you relate what you saw with what you are reading and will help you recall it better later on.

These are just a few tips to help in making the most of your EM rotation. Remember to study hard, but also practice, brush up on your communication skills, talk to patients, be there for them. The EM Clerkship prepares you for life as a doctor, as you practice every aspect of medicine during this time and learn to answer questions about acute medical problems and their severity when asked by those around you.

Cite this article as: Sumaiya Hafiz, UAE, "How to make the most of your EM Clerkship," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, October 4, 2019, https://iem-student.org/2019/10/04/how-to-make-the-most-of-your-em-clerkship/, date accessed: December 3, 2022

An upside-down cake: the EM differential diagnosis

An upside-down cake: the EM differential diagnosis

How we’re different

When I was rotating on surgery as a medical student, our attending once asked of our small group what may be concerning in the differential for right upper quadrant abdominal pain. A very eager and a somewhat brash student blurted immediately: “Echinococcal cyst!” The attending replied, “Well, that’s true, but if Echinococcal cyst is the first thing you think of as a surgical consultant, you’re crazy!”

On the other hand, take a practicing internal medicine physician like my Dad. He formulates his differentials with a very different strategy, which is: what is the most likely? A chronic cough is bronchitis (even with hemoptysis), pneumonia, GERD or postnasal drip. Shoulder pain is, of course, a sprain, bursitis, or some referred cervical impingement. And so on.

Unfortunately, neither hunting for zebras (an unofficial US name for exciting but rare diagnoses) nor settling for the most common works for emergency medicine. In fact, that is how true diagnoses may get missed and patients may start dying. 

Why we are different

The EM differential diagnosis is a pyramid tipped on its head. It is therefore different from how differentials are approached by many other specialties.

In EM, we first have to think of and rule out the most severe or threatening pathology. That’s a given. But our choices have to come from among the common killers, not Martian viruses or unheard of tumors from a medical encyclopedia. 

Amoebic meningitis is exciting to encounter in your practice. But guess what? Your patient won’t have it. At the same time, for EM physicians things like pulmonary embolus, aneurysm of the abdominal aorta, subarachnoid hemorrhage and necrotizing fasciitis are everyday icons on our cognitive desktops. While less common than a common cold, these things are by no means rare.

Why it is difficult

In EM, one can rest assured that common pathology will present atypically and not quite like the textbook.

Things are further complicated by confounders, mimics and the disjunction of concern.
 
Confounders are concurrent pathologic processes that the patient already has, which tend to get worse due to any new significant disease process or general body stress. CHF and COPD get exacerbated, kidneys become insufficient, anxiety and psychoses go florid and atrial fibrillation accelerates to rapid. How do you spot sepsis or an MI, which is the true cause of it all, underneath layers and layers of abnormal vitals and test results?
 
Mimics are things that pretend to be other diseases. PE presenting with a low-grade fever and a cough, carbon monoxide poisoning posing as geriatric altered mental status, and severe sepsis arriving as chest pain, dizziness and a bumped troponin. Such has happened many times in the past and continues to happen daily at all EDs globally.
 
The disjunction of concern is when your patient is not worried about what you are worried about. They don’t want to get cancer like their neighbor, but they have never heard of a TIA or an AAA. Kawasaki disease? Why don’t you just give my daughter better antibiotics? My uncle died of a heart attack at 35, not a “bisection” or whatever you called it…So I don’t want a CT scan!
 
An EM physician’s focus on ruling out worst-case scenarios may paradoxically contribute to a patient’s distrust at the end of the encounter. The patient’s agenda is to leave knowing what disease they have, while we are often satisfied knowing which horrible things a patient does do not have.

It may take years of practice to be able to persuade someone that you have done due diligence and your professional duty by excluding a whole lot of deadly things, while the exact diagnosis still remains elusive.

Secretly paranoid, openly confident and always nice

We are confident, but also afraid. We have to think of the worst yet possible scenario for any complaint, yet of course anticipate that the actual diagnosis will hopefully be something less severe and quite common – like a migraine. After all, after most CT scans and lumbar punctures, it is not a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

In EM, we are in this perpetual struggle with having to be professionally pessimistic and paranoid on the one hand, yet emotionally supportive and reassuring for the patient on the other. I always teach my students, even nursing trainees, that no one should be leaving an emergency department more scared or anxious than when they came in.

Your job as a rotating trainee in EM is to understand and learn this exact interplay.

Homework

For your attending, but more importantly for yourself and your patients, you have to be as concerned with sepsis from PID on a 16-year-old young woman with fever and abdominal pain as you are with appendicitis. The 86 year old grandmother with Afib but on no anti-coagulation, because she falls a lot is not just TIA or CVA prone. Her embolic clots may just as well be traveling downstream, causing that intermittent or out of proportion abdominal pain called mesenteric ischemia – for which you do not have a good lab test or imaging, by the way.

Here is a brief checklist:

  • For any anatomic complaint or a chief complaint type

    think of several real worst-case scenarios that are not zebras. Can something horrible yet by no means unheard of be presenting atypically? What steps can you take to prove or disprove it?

  • Think of confounders and mimics.

    What else could be going on? Like a stack of dominoes: what happened first, what happened next?

  • Address the patient’s concerns

    while carefully and patiently pursuing your own professional agenda.

  • When it turns out to be something common or benign,

    don’t forget to discuss worrisome signs for which to return. What if you’re still wrong?

If you liked this story, you may like these too!

Cite this article as: Anthony Rodigin, USA, "An upside-down cake: the EM differential diagnosis," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, August 26, 2019, https://iem-student.org/2019/08/26/an-upside-down-cake-the-em-differential-diagnosis/, date accessed: December 3, 2022

Core Topics for EM Clerkship

Core EM clerkship topics recommended by SAEM are ready for students. Feel free to read or listen. And, do not forget to share with your colleagues or students. Sharing is caring!

Shock

by Maryam AlBadwawi Introduction Shock, in simple terms, is a reduced circulatory blood flow state within the body. The inadequate circulation deprives the tissues of its

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Chest Pain

by Asaad S Shujaa Introduction Chest pain is one of the most common symptoms presented in the emergency department (ED), and it is worrisome because

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Gastrointestinal Bleeding

by Moira Carrol, Gurpreet Mudan, and Suzanne Bentley Case Presentation A 61-year-old man with a history of liver cirrhosis secondary to chronic EtOH abuse presents to

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Headache

by Matevz Privsek and Gregor Prosen Introduction Headache is a subjective feeling of pain, crushing, squeezing or stabbing anywhere in the head. They are typically

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Respiratory Distress

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Is Troponin Enough?

You are the emergency doc working in a rural ED. It is the Saturday night at 23:25 and you have three patients with chest pain. All have unchanged ECGs and normal troponins. All feel well now and want to go home if you think their results are okay. What is your plan for each of them?

Patient 1. Isabel D. is a 45-year old female with a history of hypertension. She presented to the emergency department with left-sided sharp chest pain. Her pain started after his evening run, and she vomited once. Her pain continued for one hour, but then it lessened spontaneously. Now she is feeling well, and she wants to go home. Her ECG is completely normal. Her 0- and 3-hour troponins are negative.

Paint 2. Daniel B. Is a 65-year old male with a history of smoking, hypotension and left bundle branch block (LBBB). He is obese. He presented to the emergency department with left-sided heavy chest pain, radiating to his left arm, chin, and back. He went to bed early today, and his chest pain woke him up. For half an hour, he has felt sweaty and nauseated but now he is feeling well, and he wants to go home. His ECG shows LBBB, unchanged compared to his previous ECGs and without Sgarbossa Criteria. His 0- and 3- hour troponins are negative.

Patient 3. Hank P. is a 54-year old male with a history of hypertension, diabetes mellitus and prior stroke with no sequel. For twenty minutes, he experienced a sharp pain in the middle of his chest. His pain had started while he was watching TV and he felt sweaty all in a sudden. he had His ECG shows findings related to left ventricular hypertrophy.  His 0- and 3- hour troponins are negative.

HEART Score

HEART Score was developed to predict the 6-week risk of a major adverse cardiac event of patients with chest pain, precisely in the emergency department setting (1). It outperformed the others, especially in exclusion of low-risk patients (2) Patients with a combination of HEART score of 0-3 and two negative troponins can be safely discharged from ED with no major adverse cardiac events (3). Patients with HEART Score of 4-6 requires admission and are candidates for further noninvasive investigations (1). Patients with HEART Score of ≥7 requires admission and are candidates for early invasive strategies (1).

HEART Score

CategoryScoreExplanationRisk Features
HistoryHigh-risk features
• Middle- or left-sided chest pain
• Heavy chest pain
• Diaphoresis
• Radiation
• Nausea and vomiting
• Exertional
• Relief of symptoms by sublingual nitrates

Low-risk features
• Well localized
• Sharp pain
• Non-exertional
• No diaphoresis
• No nausea and vomiting
Slightly Suspicious 0Mostly low-risk features
Moderately Suspicious+1Mixture of high-risk and low-risk features
Highly Suspicious+2Mostly high-risk features
ECG
Normal0Completely Normal
Non-specific Repolarization Disturbance+1Non-specific repolarization disturbance• Repolarization abnormalities
• Non-specific T wave changes
• Non-specific ST wave depression or elevation
• Bundle branch blocks
• Pacemaker rhythms
• Left ventricular hypertrophy
• Early repolarization
• Digoxin effect
Significant ST Depression+2Significant ST depression• Ischemic ST-segment depression
• New ischemic T wave inversions
Age
<450
45-64+1
≥ 65+2
Risk Factors• Obesity (Body-Mass Index ≥ 30)
• Current or recent (≤ 90 days)smoker
• Currently treated diabetes mellitus
• Family history of coroner artery disease (1st degree relative < 55 year old)
• Hypercholesterolemia

OR

Any history of atherosclerotic disease earn 2 points:
• Know Coroner artery Disease: Prior myocardial infarctions, percutan coronary intervention (PCI) or coronary artery bypass graft
• Prior stroke or transient ischemic attack
• Peripheral arterial disease
No known risk factors0
1-2 risk factors+1
≥ 3 risk factors or history of atherosclerotic disease+2
Initial Troponin
≤ normal limit0
1-3 x normal limit+1
> 3x normal limit+2
Please read articles 1,2,4 for more information.

Now, let’s look back on our patients.

Isabel’s pain has both high-risk (exertional, left-sided pain with vomiting) and (sharp pain, no diaphoresis) features; therefore, her pain is moderately suspicious. (H: +1) Her ECG is completely normal. (E: 0) She is 45 years old. (A: +1). She has one risk factor, hypertension. (R: +1) Her troponins are normal. (T: 0) Her HEART score is 3, and she can safely go home from the emergency department. The expected MACE rate in 30 days is 0%.

Daniel’s pain has mostly high-features (left-sided, radiating heavy chest pain with nausea and vomiting); therefore his pain is highly suspicious. (H: +2) His ECG is not completely normal but free of new ischemic changes. (E: +1) He is 65 years old. (A: +2). He has three risk factors, smoking, obesity, and hypertension. (R: +2) His troponins are normal. (T: 0) His HEART score is 7, and he is a candidate for early invasive intervention. You should admit him and call the cardiologist.

Hank’s pain has both high-risk (middle-sided chest pain with diaphoresis) and low-risk (non-exertional, sharp pain) features; therefore, his pain is moderately suspicious. (H: +1) His ECG is not completely normal but free of new ischemic changes. (E: +1) He is 54 years old. (A: +1). He has three risk factors, hypertension, diabetes mellitus and prior stroke. (Note that prior stroke alone earns two points) (R: +2) His troponins are normal. (T: 0) His HEART score is 5, and he is a candidate for noninvasive investigation. You should admit him.

PEARLS and PITFALLS

  1. ECG: If the ECG shows STEMI, do not wait for troponin or consider the HEART score. Call the cardiologist and consider activating angiography unit for the primary PCI.
  2. Troponins: If you first troponin is highly abnormal, do not wait for the second troponin or consider the HEART score. Call the cardiologist and consider activating angiography unit for the primary PCI. Additionally, the magnitude of change between the first and the second troponin is important in diagnosing acute myocardial infarction (5).
  3. Clinical Gestalt: You will gain a clinical gestalt over the years. If your clinical gestalt and any scoring disagree, always stay on the safe side for the patient’s benefit (4).
  4. Patient Safety: In the original study, the HEART score was combined with only one troponin. The adverse event rate was 2.5% for the HEART score 0-3 patients, 20.3% for the HEART score 4-6 patients and 72.7% for the HEART score ≥7 patients. Therefore, the author believes, the HEART score combined with two troponins is safer in the discharge of low-risk patients. Low-risk patients (i.e., HEART Score 0-3) with negative two troponins had no MACE within 30 days (3).

Suggested Chapters

Chest Pain by Asaad S Shujaa

Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS)

by Khalid Mohammed Ali, Shirley Ooi

REFERENCES

  1. Six, A. J., Backus, B. E., & Kelder, J. C. (2008). Chest pain in the emergency room: value of the HEART score. Netherlands Heart Journal, 16(6), 191-196. – link
  2. Radecki, R. (2013). Time to Move to the HEART Score. Available at: http://www.emlitofnote.com/?p=440 (Accessed: 17/07/2018) – link
  3. Mahler, S. A., Riley, R. F., Hiestand, B. C., Russell, G. B., Hoekstra, J. W., Lefebvre, C. W., … & Herrington, D. M. (2015). The Heart Pathway Randomized Trial: Identifying Emergency Department Patients With Acute Chest Pain for Early Discharge. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, 8(2), 195-203. – link
  4. Hyunjoo, L., & Rodriguez, C. (n.d.). HEART Score for Major Cardiac Events. Available at: https://www.mdcalc.com/heart-score-major-cardiac-events#evidence (Accessed: 17/07/2018) – link
  5. Roffi, M., Patrono, C., Collet, J. P., Mueller, C., Valgimigli, M., Andreotti, F., … & Gencer, B. (2016). 2015 ESC Guidelines for the management of acute coronary syndromes in patients presenting without persistent ST-segment elevation: Task Force for the Management of Acute Coronary Syndromes in Patients Presenting without Persistent ST-Segment Elevation of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). European heart journal, 37(3), 267-315. – link

FURTHER READING