Emergency Medicine may not be what you think it is

Welcome to your medical student Emergency Medicine rotation. You may feel very familiar with emergency medicine. It is a staple of prime-time television drama, and you will have almost certainly visited the emergency department during your previous rotations. Other specialists may have given you their opinion, not always flattering, of the emergency department. We hope that while you are with us, we will deepen your understanding of emergency medicine, and help you learn skills that will help you throughout your medical career.

There will certainly be emergencies. On any shift, you could suddenly be a practical part of a team that is striving to save a patient’s life. You will learn the basics of keeping a patient alive. But you will also find that critical care is not the only part of emergency medicine. It is not even the most difficult part.

Emergency medicine deals with undifferentiated illness. By the time a patient reaches the inpatient ward, they often have a label of pneumonia, angina or appendicitis. In the emergency department they had shortness of breath or abdominal pain. Emergency medicine is a diagnostic specialty. Most of our time is spent trying work out who is really sick, without taking too much time or ordering unnecessary tests. The most stressful aspect of emergency medicine can be deciding whether to send home a patient with a headache that is probably a migraine, but just might be a cerebral haemorrhage.

The emergency department is also where the hospital meets the community. On a single day you may speak to general practitioners, specialty units, community teams, health administrators, paramedics and the police. The stresses on the health system are often most obvious here. You will see how people move between various areas of health care. You will see how they can end up in the emergency department when they fall through the cracks. You may also see how the stresses of shift work and time pressures affect you.

In these few weeks, you will perform many practical skills for the first time. Minor procedures are common in the emergency department. You should have practiced these tasks in the skills lab, but performing procedures on real people is different; they feel pain, they move, their anatomy is unique, and they may ask you to stop. Practicing procedures on patients will make you feel uncomfortable. To become a practical doctor you must become comfortable with being uncomfortable. We will be here to help. You are part of the team, and performing procedures, if consent is given, that the patient needs. It gets easier. You need to become comfortable with the basic skills, so that when you are an intern you can become uncomfortable again with even more advanced tasks.

So welcome again to your emergency rotation. It might not be what you expect, but it may be what you need.

Small rural hospitals are little in size, not importance (part two)

Small rural emergency departments are said to be not worth worrying about. Last post we tackled the question of whether they saw too few patients to be important. We saw, from the study described, that although each facility saw only small numbers, together they combined to be a significant proportion of a state’s emergency medical presentations.

But perhaps the patients that these small rural emergency facilities manage are not really that unwell. Perhaps these facilities provide little more than dressings and antibiotics?

Like last post, we looked at what was happening in our state of Victoria, Australia. We turned again to the 20,000 emergency medical presentations analysed in our original study as they were managed in six small rural hospital-based emergency care facilities. We compared them to the one million patients seen in Victorian metro hospitals. We used the 28 level codes developed by the Independent Health Pricing Agency for calculating ED activity. We created two 28 by 5 charts to show the data. We have decided not to show them to you. Instead we created a Wordle.

Rural Diagnosis wordle

On a wordle, each word is proportional to the number of items represented by that word. The bigger the word, the more patients presented with that diagnosis.

At a glance, you can see the the same spectrum of patients for both groups. Can you guess which is small rural and which is metro? You should be able. Respiratory, circulatory and digestive problems are common at both. So is injury, but small hospitals see more minor injury, and less multi-trauma. They are not the same, but they are not vastly different either.

It is similar with triage categories. There is a general decrease in the urgent categories as you get to smaller hospitals, but not an order of magnitude less. In metro hospitals 5 patients per 1000 were category one and 100 per 1000 category two, in the small rural hospitals it was 3 per 1000 category one and 60 per 1000 category two. In both small rurals and metros, 4 was the most common category.

This makes sense to me. I never really understood how experts could be so sure that small rural hospitals saw no sick patients when rural patients are thought to have more risk factors and poorer health, present later, don’t like to travel as much, and don’t call the ambulance as often.

So small rural emergency facilities do see similar patients to larger facilities, with about half as many critical cases. When combined they see a significant proportion of emergency medicine presentations. I think this justifies our statement that small rural emergency facilities are little in size, not importance.



Small rural hospitals are little in size, not importance (part one)

Small rural emergency departments are said to be not worth worrying about. They see too few patients. Is that really true? We decided to look at what was happening in our state of Victoria in Australia.

The Australian Hospital Statistics 2012–13 reports that there are 621 hospital-based emergency care facilities of some size and sort in Australia. 204 are what has been traditionally thought of as emergency departments – in metropolitan and large regional centres. The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine accredits about 180 of these for training. 469 are smaller, mostly rural, facilities.

I would love to describe the activity at these small rural facilities for you but, I can’t do it easily, because almost no data is collected from these 469 facilities. Large emergency departments submit episode level data on every patient they see – demographics, diagnosis, waiting times, disposition. Small emergency facilities often don’t have to submit anything but a count of how many people went through the door each year.

So we decided to collect some episode level data. There is no point being a Centre for Rural Emergency Medicine if you don’t even know what is going on. We created the SHED project – the Small Hospital ED project. We aimed to collect full episode level data from six small rual emergency departments. It wasn’t as easy as we expected. Some were still writing patient names in big old books. We put an emergency department IT system at each hospital, we took all the nurses through triage training, we educated the staff, we employed research assistants for over 12 months at each site, we audited about 10% of the patient notes.

The project ran from Feb 2011 until Jan 2012 and collected full episode level data from over 20,000 patients. We then expanded the project with the help of the Activity Based Funding Project at the Victorian Department of Health. We ran all our research queries through the data for all larger Victorian Emergency Departments over the same time, and we obtained the simple counts of patients presenting to Victoria’s other small rural emergency facilities over the same period. We think Victoria is a good state to study for this project as it is a small and fairly urban and centralised state. It is unlikely to exagerate the importance of rural hospitals.

So could we answer the thought that there are not many small hospital emergency facilities and they don’t see many patients.? We think we have something to add.

Vic Emergency facilities

This is Victoria’s public emergency system represented with each icon scaled to the average number of emergency presentations seen in each class.

It is certainly true that metropolitan hospitals are bigger. They see on average 46,000 presentations each year (some are much bigger), and large regional hospitals average 42,000. Subregional hospitals see 17,000 and small rural hospitals 3,000.

You will notice though, that the number of hospitals goes the other way. There are 22 metropolitan emergency facilities compared to 62 rural emergency facilities- 45 of them are at small rural hospitals.

So can we multiply things to see where patients are seen? Yes we can.

Victorian emergency presentations

Over a third of emergency department presentations in an urban state like Victoria are to a rural, regional, or remote emergency facility; one million metro, half a million rural. That means there are almost half as many reasons for Australasian College for Emergency Medicine to be a rurally-based college with a metro committee as a metro-based college with a rural, regional and remote committee.

And even the smallest emergency facilities, like some of those I work at, see 8% of the total presentations, or 140,000 per year. That means that the sector sees many more presentations Victoria’s largest single emergency department ED. When combined, at least in the number of presentations, small rural emergency facilities are big enough to be important.

(To be continued in part two)

Improving Rural Emergency Care

 April 2011


Small rural emergency departments are important. They are a significant fraction of a state’s emergency medical system. Although they each see only a few thousand patients a year, as a group they are likely to treat more emergency patients than the largest city hospital. It is a myth that they only deal with minor ailments. Many isolated rural hospitals receive ambulances because ambulance services are reluctant to send their only local ambulance out of area. In addition, many patients with serious illness come directly to the emergency department without calling an ambulance.

There is little ongoing research into how these departments operate, and how their performance can be improved. Here we offer three ways to improve emergency care for communities around small rural hospitals.

Provide a simple access point for rural families, and advertise it.

We have found that country people are uncertain how to access help in a medical emergency. When we asked farming families to nominate their nearest emergency department, 10 % incorrectly nominated towns with no emergency department at all. Only some of these towns had a medical centre. Many studies have demonstrated rural families’ reluctance to call ambulance services. It is easy to imagine a scenario where people drive through the night to find the only available emergency care was in the other direction.

Improve co-operation between rural hospitals and ambulance services. Work out the number of critical care procedures required each year, and use simulation to keep a small number of clinicians competent to perform them.

It is hard for a small town to recruit enough doctors with critical care skills. It is just as hard to recruit paramedics with those skills. And there are not enough emergencies in most towns to keep a full complement of doctors, remote area nurses and paramedics from becoming rusty. Unfortunately, there are often too many to ignore. And unfortunately, a helicopter service is not always available either. Many small towns have a hospital and an ambulance base, but their rosters are not co-ordinated. One day there will be an intensive care paramedic and General practitioner Anaesthetist in town. Later in the week there will be nobody with critical care skills. An integrated system will also provide certainty for rural general practitioners who are concerned that they may have no role in rural emergency care in the future.

Add a key performance indicator for regional emergency departments that gives a minimum percentage of transfers from their surrounding small hospitals that must be accepted.

Every emergency department has an Admitting Officer to receive calls from surrounding health services. Most are helpful, but to meet the performance targets of their own department, they often become Deflecting Officers who refuse patients when they are busy. There is little downside to this for large hospitals, but a doctor at a small hospital can waste many hours looking for someone to accept his or her patient.

These three tasks – advertising a single access point, co-ordinating critical care cover, and auditing the responsiveness of regional services – will require different approaches in different jurisdictions.  They will also require research, so that the solutions can be well targeted and evidence based. The Centre for Rural Emergency Medicine is committed to assisting in this process.

Out of hours radiology

March 2011



Although Rural Emergency Departments operate 24 hours a day, not all hospital resources can do the same. In order to maximize the number of daytime radiographers, a reduced service is often in place after hours. Deciding to call in a radiographer at night may reduce the number of radiographers available the next day.

Unfortunately there is little research to base out of hours radiology guidelines on. Nobody really knows which images can be safely delayed until morning. The best that can be done is to see what has worked in other rural hospitals.

These guidelines were originally written for Portland District Hospital in Western Victoria. Portland is a town of 10,000 people on the South West Victorian coast, four hours drive from the capital city and over one hour drive to the nearest regional centre. The hospital has 69 beds, and the Emergency Department sees 9000 patients annually. The radiology facilities available between nine AM and five PM on weekdays include X-rays, CT scans and ultrasound. The radiographer is on call from home after these hours and on public holidays. There is no onsite radiologist, but opinions are obtainable by telemedicine 24 hours each day.


Radiographic imaging should only be ordered at night if it will significantly change the management of a patient. Positive images that confirm a diagnosis and negative images that exclude a diagnosis can both be useful. Radiographs should be ordered if a delay in imaging could adversely affect patient outcome. This can occur when uncertain diagnosis or inability to exclude important diagnoses result in

1. Delayed critical treatment  

– Example: Confirming air under the diaphragm prior to laparotomy

2. Delayed critical investigation 

– Example: excluding asymmetrical ICP rise prior to lumbar puncture

3. Delayed transport to critical care services  

– Example: excluding pneumothorax prior to trauma transport by air

4. Delayed transport for urgent surgery  

– Example: confirming fracture type underlying open wound

5. Prolonged patient pain because treatment cannot be initiated 

– Example: confirming first dislocation of shoulder prior to reduction

6. Prolonged patient pain because treatments cannot be removed 

– Example: Many hours in cervical collar when it could be removed if imaging showed no fracture


Several options are available

1. Emergency department staff can order any image, using this protocol as a guide 

2. All image requests have to be cleared by the radiologist 

3. Requests in accordance with this protocol  can be ordered without radiologist approval. Borderline cases or cases outside the parameters of this guide have to be cleared by a radiologist. This is the option chosen by Portland District Hospital.

Weekends and public holidays

These are officially out of hours, but sometimes it is inappropriate for patients seen on Friday night to wait for two days for their imaging. This is particularly problematic on long weekends. For this reason, consider a system where  a number of patients may be brought back on a weekend afternoon who do not strictly meet the after hours parameters. An example of this would be a deformed wrist fracture: Imaging can wait until morning, but should not wait for two days.

Trauma imaging

Portland is designated as an Urgent Care Service in Victoria’s Trauma system. It is tasked with rapidly assessing and stabilizing trauma patients and then moving them quickly to definitive care. Delayed diagnosis of traumatic injury, especially head injury or occult bleeding increases the likelihood of an adverse outcome.

Urgent radiology is indicated for

• Any trauma meeting major trauma criteria

• Head injury with any of the following

– Focal neurology

– Glasgow Coma Score < 14 (even if possibly due to intoxication)

– Severe headache

– Anticoagulant use (will need rescan at 24 hours also)

• Neck injury with any of the following

– Focal neurology

– Severe neck pain

– Inability to maintain c-spine precautions due to poor patient compliance

– Significant patient discomfort due to hard collar when delay in imaging is likely to be many hours.

• Chest trauma with any of the following

– Respiratory distress

– Hypoxia

– Significant pain

– Significant chest wall or sternal tenderness

• Abdominal trauma with any of the following

– Rebound or guarding

– Hypotension or tachycardia

– Macroscopic haematuria

• Pelvic trauma with

– Pain on pelvic springing

Urgent radiology is seldom indicated for

• Mild symptoms in low impact injury

• Intoxicated patients (GCS14) tolerating the hard collar, where intoxication precludes collar removal, even with a clear CT scan

Respiratory imaging

It can be difficult to diagnose the underlying cause for a patient’s respiratory distress. As treatments can be quite different (diuretics, anticoagulants, bronchodilators), it is important to make the diagnosis as soon as possible. Certain diagnoses (such as pneumothorax or large pleural effusion) can be treated immediately if they can be confirmed.

Urgent radiology is indicated for

• Shortness of breath of uncertain diagnosis with any of the following

– Increased work of breathing

– Tachypnoea

– New hypoxia (saturation < 95%)

• Possible pneumothorax

• Possible thoracic dissection

• Possible large pleural effusion requiring urgent aspiration (and post aspiration film also)

Urgent radiology is seldom indicated for

• Shortness of breath were the patient is not in respiratory distress

– Example: Probable mild to moderate pneumonia

• Shortness of breath where the diagnosis is certain and the patient is improving

– Example: acute asthma

• Possible pulmonary embolus where the patient is stable

– Unless the patient has a high risk of bleeding, the patient can be anticoagulated and imaged the next day

Abdominal imaging

Unless the diagnosis under consideration is likely to require immediate surgery, imaging can be delayed. It is often sensible to discuss the case with surgical staff prior to imaging.

Urgent radiology is indicated for

• Acute abdomen

– Obtain surgical advice. Immediate transfer or operation may be a better option

• Possible organ rupture

• Possible volvulus

• Possible leaking aortic aneurysm

• Possible ectopic pregnancy

• Unfortunately out of hours ultrasound is not available in many rural hospitals. The patient will need to be transferred

Urgent radiology is seldom indicated for

• Abdominal pain with localised abdominal signs

Orthopaedic imaging

Most patients with limb fractures can be made comfortable with splinting and analgesia. They can return the next day for x-ray. Even moderately displaced fractures are unlikely to be operated on after hours. They should also be splinted, but the patient may need to remain in the emergency department until x-ray is available the next morning.

Urgent radiology is indicated for

• Open fractures

• Fractures with significant limb deformity or neurovascular compromise

• Possible dislocation, if immediate relocation is possible

– Patients with recurrent shoulder dislocation may sometimes be relocated without x-ray, and remain in the emergency department for a post reduction film in the morning

• Possible cauda equina syndrome

Urgent radiology is seldom indicated for

• Mild or moderately displaced fractures with little chance of neurovascular problems

• Suspected fractures

Neurological imaging

Urgent radiology is indicated for

• Cerebrovascular accident with any of the following

– Time since symptom free < 3 hours

– Possible intra-cerebral bleed

– Example: associated anticoagulation, hypertension, headache

– GCS < 14

– Deterioration

• Focal seizures

• Prior to lumbar puncture

– Discuss with consultant staff. CT is occasionally not needed

Urgent radiology is seldom indicated for

• Transient ischaemic attack, if symptoms resolved

• Post seizure, if patient is returning to normal GCS

• Syncope, without focal neurology or abnormal vital signs

Other imaging

In general, patients being transferred to intensive care should not have their imaging delayed. If a patient requires urgent transfer for surgery, but that cannot be arranged until imaging results are known, imaging may have to be performed out of hours.

Urgent radiology is indicated for

• Patients being transferred to a critical care bed or for urgent surgery

– Example: post central venous line placement

• Patients requiring anticoagulation, but require exclusion of bleeding

– Example: Possible pulmonary embolus and altered mental state – exclude intracerebral bleed

Urgent imaging is seldom required for

• Possible acute coronary syndrome, if chest is clear and the patient is not being transported

• Peripheral foreign bodies

Dr Tim Baker