What does emergency medicine have to do with good health?*

*If you have gone to the Rick Bukata school of medicine you would automatically conclude the answer is no based purely on the title, but maybe there’s room for debate

I’m returning to Australia from a holiday in Scandinavia and Germany. As my return flight loomed closer, insecurities were growing about my abilities as an emergency physician. Had I spent the previous six months living up to the standards of clinical credibility that I hold myself to? Had I tried to foster a culture of kindness and caring towards my colleagues whilst trying to nudge for small improvements (usually less radiation, more ultrasound and history+exam)?  

When travelling, I love the privileges afforded by walking almost everywhere. There is usually a beer:exercise mismatch which needs managing, and lots of thinking to be done about life. When thinking gets tiresome whilst walking, podcasts offer an alternative form of simulation.  In the depths of my introspection tonight whilst walking home from a museum, my self-admonishment was interrupted and dissipated by an ABC Radio National Big Ideas podcast on refugees – specifically on the systematic and codified methods of physical and psychological abuse of fellow human beings meted out by my own national government, who are nominally the democratic instrument of the Australian population.  Having spent most of my day at the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin and seen railway wagons which transported Jewish people to their deaths, perhaps I was already primed to react strongly against state-enacted human rights abuses. Feeling somewhat impotent to meaningfully deal with this issue, I started to reflect on the social determinants of health (since the refugees on Manus Island are completely screwed in this respect). What does it means to have “good” health?  Can emergency medicine influence this in anyway?  My holiday experiences suggested some answers.

I spent seven days in Norway and did not see anyone who was obese.  This is in contradistinction to the town I live in, where some days it seems like I do not see a single person who is non-obese.  I spent five days in Sweden and I did not see anyone who was drunk and disorderly or drug affected.  To contextualise – I specifically went to Sweden to attend several electronic music concerts which went on well into the early hours – I think I had a fair crack at trying to find drug or alcohol related problems.  On the whole, the people in Scandinavia seemed to be far more healthy. Why could this be so? I’ve tried to identify some possible determinants of the perceived differences

Attitude towards the environment
In Norway, I observed a pervasive respect for natural beauty, and a desire to preserve, improve, and be a part of the physical environment.  Perhaps it’s related to colonial heritage, but when the scrubby forest surrounding my town was first surveyed, settlers concluded that the trees were not good for anything except for chopping down to make handles for stock-whips – hence The Whipstick.  54% of Swedish energy is renewable. The current Prime Minister of Australia jokes that coal won’t hurt anyone. Could Australian poverty in environmental values translate into poverty of health? 


The physical environment itself
There is no denying that the Lofoten Islands are stunningly beautiful, as is the Swedish archipelago. It could be argued that the natural beauty draws people out of their homes, thereby keeping them more fit and active. Beautiful it might be, but if you do want to go outside in winter you have to contend with temperatures of -10.C or less, with wind chill factors more again.  It clearly didn’t stop the numerous nanas I saw from getting out and about on their 3-runner push sleds which appeared to be the equivalent of our 4-wheel frames.  With the snow and ice, “#NOF central?” as one of my colleagues suggested. I don’t think so. The older adults I saw looked pretty darn robust.  I couldn’t find any nursing homes either. A different attitude to supporting elderly people as well perhaps? Thinking about the Australian relationship with nature, for many I suspect “The Great Outdoors” is a TV show.


Treatment of marginalised people
For a small town in the arctic circle, I was astounded to find a host of resettled refugees in Svolvaer. Taking a straw poll from various locals, they all spoke warmly about the refugees who had come to their town, and acknowledged with compassion that when other people are suffering, you have a morale duty to try to help them.  How reasonable! In Australia, meanwhile, there are concerns that marginalised people will take our jobs, erode white Christian values, or terrorise us.


Poster of a healthy nation?

boat people

Short memory?


The Norwegian perspective

Attitude towards alcohol
In Sweden, outside of bars/clubs/restaurants, the only place you can buy alcohol is the state-owned monopoly of stores: Systembolaget. The trading hours are restricted compared to Australia, but if you plann your alcohol purchases in advance it’s easy. Interestingly, the cost of alcohol in Sweden seemed notably less than in Australia. The drinking culture seemed to be sensible. This had not always been the case – as readers of Per Anders Fogelström’s “City of my dreams” could well attest to, so somewhere along the line alcohol use in Sweden alcohol attitudes changed for the better.


No need for refrigeration in winter

Relationship with animals
In Scandinavia it is very natural for dogs to go everywhere – trains, buses, bottle shops. The dogs seemed happy, as did the owners. I’m sure that this happiness translates into health. If 25 million people can do it in the northern hemisphere, why do 25 million people in the southern hemisphere have conniptions at the mere thought of a dog riding a VLine service?


Social connectedness and harmony
The places I’ve recently visited seemed disinterested in identity politics. A person is a person is a person, and that is good enough.  Gender neutral toilets everywhere in Sweden were just one example of the population getting on with focusing on togetherness rather than divisiveness.  


Relationship with work
In Norway people are heavily taxed if they work too much (financial disincentive for not looking after yourself?).  In Australia, despite hollow gestures from employers and regulators, people in health care are routinely punished by being worked got the point of severe health problems. This is tacitly culturally accepted by the powerful as being “what you have to do”.


The response so far…

Sense of humour
The Scandinavians didn’t seem to mind taking the piss. Seriously, when your national language is Swedish, why not give your train an English name to stick it to the poms? (The poms couldn’t bare the thought of not being taken seriously and despite popular vote chose not to go with Boaty McBoatface; I fear the colonial apple doesn’t rot far from the tree).   I feel that being too serious is bad for your health – look at the NHS.


Express Stockholm to Gothenburg

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 11.39.08 pm

What happened to the ministry of silly walks?

Can do attitude
In 2016 the Norwegian airforce used a fast jet to deliver an ECMO circuit to Bødo (a remote but incredibly beautiful town, I can recommend) for a time-critical emergency.  Meanwhile if you have a STEMI complicated by cardiogenic shock on a weekend in Bendigo, the cardiologist can be at your bedside but the Cath lab won’t open because “it can’t”.


Putting it all together, people in Scandinavia are almost certainly not more healthy than Australians because they have better access to statins, ECMO circuits, or a tax on sugar (they don’t, as the number of cinnamon buns I have consumed attests to). I wonder if it’s because they have better relationships with their fellow citizens, their neighbours, their planet, and their own individual inner moods and emotions on their journey in life to obtain meaning and happiness.

So can emergency medicine help influence good health? Sometimes it really feels like it is pushing shit up hill. But I guess it depends. The fabulous work done by people such as Diana Egerton-Warburton have clearly had a profound positive impact on health at a population level.

At present, I disappointingly don’t think I’ve got the staying power to take the path Diana has. To start with, I might aim to nudge good health into my immediate surroundings by trying to set an example of the Scandinavian values I’m so admiring of. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll be frustrated and take the public health route, but then again emergency medicine is just so much fun…

Où Allons Nous

I’m on the cusp of the ACEM fellowship clinical exam, surrounded by practice OSCE stems, motivating phrases on a white board, and self-critical thoughts about neglected relationships. This milieu is a psychologically provocative one and I find myself reflecting on a particular piece of art by the synthetist painter Paul Gaugin:

D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous
(Where do we come from / Who are we / Where are we going)


Where from?

I stumbled into medicine by chance.  Despite coming from a medical family, medicine in general had never been part of my life agenda. My father, a rural generalist solo practitioner, discouraged me from medicine for the first two decades of life.  After following a crowd into law school post- high-school, I dropped out after one day to begin a stillborn apprenticeship as a chef.  The cooking business lasted a year: by chance I read a book by Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on the Russian invasion of Chechnya, which was catalytic in reorienting my career aspirations. Medicine became a craft with a tangible, portable skillset that could be exercised in the spirit of social justice. I was able to piggyback off my high-school grades into medical school and muddle my way though, collecting a handful of mentors along the way. A tragic aside – Politokovskaya was murdered in my second year of medicine – the murder motivated by her social justice advocacy through journalism.


Anna Politkovskaya, 1958 – 2006 – an unfinished life


Patients often ask me if I am married. I usually make some nonchalant self-assured remark about having a couple of children and a mistress – two kelpies and the emergency department. Beneath the glib attempt to put patients at ease, there is a troublesome reality – without imposing boundaries on medicine, it could easily come to define my life. I am thankfully able to rein it in by fostering a broader perspective on life, society, the environment and the cosmos.

Truth be told, I am far from self-assured. I generally feel like a confused albeit cultured ape. I take pride in honing my clinical credibility and delivering care to vulnerable, anxious and wounded fellow primates. At the same time, I feel ashamed by waste, pollution and potential harm I do to the planet and to patients, as a cog in the enormous wheel of the medical industrial complex. I feel uncomfortable that this technology driven-wheel tends to grind for the haves at the expense of the have-nots. I feel no satisfaction spending public money on exercise stress tests (up to 24 false positives for every 1 true positive in women), or other no-value investigations, therapies or procedures. At the same time, I feel immense satisfaction when I connect with patients and provide explanation, reassurance or comfort. These dilemmas pervade the rest of my life as well. Should I respond to climate change by not having children? Or should I not worry about the planet since we’re just a pale blue dot anyway? Accepting the uncertainty of existence makes accepting uncertainty in medicine much easier.


The blueish-white speck of Earth with 6 billion kilometres of perspective. Voyager 1, 1990

Where to?

Training in emergency medicine has been a wonderful journey. The cobbles are now more familiar than when I was a truant medical student, however I’m not sure familiarity is where my future lies. I’ve no doubt emergency medicine could be harmonized within the context of the cosmos, but the model of health care in the industrially developed world seems to stray farther and farther from the reasons why I took up the stethoscope in the first place (ultrasound actually; I don’t own a stethoscope).

Paul Gaugin gave up a career as a stockbroker to learn art and paint his way around the world. Perhaps I too may choose a path less worn. Thus far, emergency medicine has gifted me with instruments necessary to manage complexity, uncertainty, stress, conflict and high emotion. Ultimately, I know that wherever I chose to navigate my future, be it in EM or art, I’m well equipped to sail around the shoals and find safe harbour.

Thomas Brough, May 2018


Rosie and Jade already know how navigate the tricky waters of life
without losing sleep over exams, missed diagnoses or stroke thrombolysis.

How much does that scan cost?

When I started out as an EM trainee, having dated a radiographer I was very cognisant of the radiation penalties from medical imaging as well as the associated risks of developing a new malignancy.  Over time my conscientiousness in requesting radiology has waned.

My individual threshold for imaging remains relatively high, especially in circumstances where validated clinical decision instruments determine further work-up to be unnecessary.  Nevertheless, arguing the toss over imaging vs not imaging with other teams (who will likely ultimately be responsible for the patient’s care) becomes intellectually frustrating. It is usually easier to facilitate care by ordering a scan and saving one’s energy for something else. Like stroke care. No wait…. forget that one too.

In equivocal cases, appealing to the attendant radiation penalty of a study may encourage deferment in favour of clinical observation.  I put together this infographic to help facilitate such a conversation, and to help me quantify radiation dose and risk of malignancy in preparation for my fellowship exam.

Another way to look at it: if you’ve spent a metaphorical $20,000 worth of medical radiation you’ve probably given someone cancer. And made a radiologist wealthy. Let’s budget our radiation wisely.

P.S. If you’re prepared to pay with personal time to study and scan, ultrasound is free 🙂


Lost dogs and lessons in fluid tolerance

Winter and spring have been unseasonably wet for central Victoria. With plenty of moisture in the soil, things were looking green and gorgeous so when a friend asked me to farm-sit for him I jumped at it. Looking after horses, a moustachioed cat and a beautiful border collie were a small price to pay for enjoying a landscape of granite boulders and grape vines. That was until the dog ran away.


Dusk arrived and Annie was still missing in action. Terrified by the idea of telling my friend about his lost dog, I decided to chase her down. I had been warned about the risk of getting bogged if I deviated off track…. meh! The ground seemed solid, I had a decent 4wd, and I clearly knew better. Spotlights on and eyes scanning, I started cruising across the paddocks. But pride comes before the fall. It was only when the ute suddenly stopped moving did I appreciate that the ground was less fluid-tolerant than my gestalt told me.  Lost car, lost dog, lost for words (other than 4-letter ones), I tried to make meaning of the day’s events and realised it was a teachable moment in the management of sepsis in the emergency department.




When patients arrive in the ED with febrile hypotension, we routinely prescribe in excess of 20-30cc/kg of salt water. The pseudoaxiom is that fluid bolus therapy will improve macrocirculation (arterial blood pressure), and therefore improve microcirculation (tissue perfusion). This is unlikely to be true. Empirically “aggressively resuscitating” people with fluid boluses probably causes harm.  Like the fool in the Hilux chasing the missing dog, we chase haemodynamic targets with unproven watery therapies (or disproven if you’re a marginalised African child) that are physiologically suspect and warrant close examination.

The pathophysiology of sepsis is complicated. The basic mechanisms of the disease, however, (at least as we currently understand it) are less complex:  vasodilation and glycocalyx (GCX) dysfunction. Organ dysfunction in septic shock can largely be attributed to one or both of these mechanisms. It is not due to hypovolaemia.

Currently there are no treatments for GCX stabilisation (unless you are a Scandinavian neonate having open heart surgery in which high doses methyl-prednisolone seems to reduce concentrations of a plasma syndecan-1; an alleged surrogate for GCX dysfunction). Current treatments for vasodilation include noradrenaline, adrenaline,  vasopressin, methylene blue, and angiotensin-2.  In sepsis, fluids cause organ dysfunction through worsening interstitial oedema due to GCX dysfunction, and cause vasodilation by stimulating release of naturetic peptides. It is therefore bizarre that it should be used as a first line therapy for septic shock.

Pseudoaxiom one: Fill the tank before you squeeze.

There is no tank to fill in sepsis, and a vasodilated state is probably best managed with vasoconstrictors.  Giving a septic patient a fluid bolus will increase cardiac filling pressures, triggering release of naturetic peptides which cause vasodilation.  Thus in sepsis, fluids can be considered a vasodilator therapy.  If clinicians are concerned that there is inadequate preload, the LV end-diastolic volume should be measured with echo.

Pseudoaxiom two: fluids improve stroke volume

Patients with septic shock have a depressed Starling curve with a reduction in recruitable contractility via increased preload. > 50% of patients with septic shock have diastolic dysfunction which responds poorly to fluid therapy.

img_3269Ognibene FP, Parker MM, Natanson C, Shelhamer JH, Parrillo JE. Depressed left ventricular performance: response to volume infusion in patients with sepsis and septic shock. Chest 1988; 93: 903–1


Pseudoaxiom three: fluid stays in the circulating volume

In patients with septic shock less than 5% of administered fluid remains in the intravascular space at 1hr. This fluid leaks from the vascular compartment to enter the interstitium, causing organ dysfunction. The Marik-Philips EVLW curve illustrates the respiratory harms of fluid therapy in patients with increasing filling pressures. In the abdomen, increased initerstital oedema causes intra-abdominal hypertension, gut failure and renal failure.



Pseudoaxiom four: albumin is the answer when crystalloid fails

The disrupted GCX enables translocation of albumin into the interstitium, where it  continues to exert an osmotic effect causing further interstitial oedema.

Lessons Learnt

The concept of fluid tolerance in pursuit of haemodynamic “stability” in shocked septic patients is as ill-fated as a hunt for a lost dog across a muddy paddock in the dark. Even though there was no surface water visible, the ground swallowed up my ute before I even realised I was on a path to trouble. So too do we drive our septic emergency department patients further into multi-organ dysfunction with iatrogenic salt-water drowning.

So how do I manage septic shock in the ED? After antibiotics are on board I perform a focused haemodynamic assessment using echo to examine preload (LVEDD or LVEDA), contractility (fractional shortening or fractional area change), filling pressures (interatrial septal motion), and diastolic function (E/A, E/e prime).  This takes less than 5 minutes. If patients have had no recent oral intake I replace guesstimated deficits (4, 2, 1 method) then commence maintenance fluids (D5W and providing Na, K, Mg as required [N.B. Australian RDI of sodium is 40mmol, not 154mmol]). I concurrently target a MAP of 65-70mmHg using a combination of noradrenaline, vasopressin and adrenaline, depending on the haemodynamic state.

So what happened to the ute you ask? Like the drowned patient needing CRRT and an inpatient bed before they break the NEAT 4-hour rule, I had to phone a critical care colleague who spent 4 hrs helping me dig the car out of the quagmire and haul it to dry ground.  Annie came back on her own volition without intervention and I scored a well earned “told you so” from her master.



With thanks to Paul Marik, Thomas Woodcock, Rinaldo Bellomo and John Myburgh for inspiring me to care about fluids.

Special thanks to Caitlin Young for helping to dig me out of my stupidity.

Broken ladders and analgesia

What’s the age cut-off for stupid males (or females) to no longer be allowed to climb ladders? As long as it’s under 35 years old I’m safe.

But that’s not the reason for today’s post.  Yesterday I saw half a dozen patients with various painful conditions who at some stage had been prescribed opioids as first line therapy without simple analgesic adjuncts. A quick straw poll of the staff on shift at that time revealed that no-one apart from myself had heard of the WHO pain ladder.

Today is a beautiful spring day in central Victoria. With crisp air, warm sun, and bees happily  gathering digitalis-laden pollen from my foxgloves, it was a good opportunity to get on the roof and clean out the gutters of the house.  Until my ladder broke…. Was it a teachable moment for my personal safety? No.  But it seemed like a teachable moment for how I approach analgesia in the ED.

Climb the ladder to escape pain.


Making (non)sense of emergency care models – where do the clinicians fit in? A follow-up to “Where to for EM?”

I read this post when it was first published last year. A great synthesis indeed. I then forgot about it.

Today I finished my first shift as a rat doctor (rapid assessment and treatment/triage/whatever) and followed up the day with an evening of studying crit care echo. For some reason I felt a nagging tension between these two functions, both of which are arguably core emergency physician skill sets. I was worried I would find it difficult to be good at everything under the EM roof. I wanted answers and ended up back at Mark’s blog post, but have frustratingly (and amusingly) found more questions.

Since signing up to ACEM as a trainee I’ve been an ultrasound enthusiast. But after some embarrassing over-calls (and probably a host of undercalls I’m oblivious of), with varying degrees of consequence, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and pay for an expensive university qualification in clinical ultrasound. As a result, I’ve aged prematurely… within a very short space of time I turned into the old curmudgeon grumbling about young enthusiasts who pick up the probe because they know where the “ON” button.

Critical care ultrasound seems to be an invaluable tool for providing patients with the best care during their moments of physiologic crisis. Unfortunately it’s not necessarily as simple as eFAST, EGLS or HI-MAP. Sure, for most of our “sick” patients it will be adequate, but if we really want to walk the walk of a critical care clinician we should probably develop more robust resuscitation strategies than giving 2L of CSL, intubating and starting a noradrenaline infusion +/- antibiotics.

To develop that kind of skill set whilst wielding a sector probe, it would take time, practice, and departmental structures that foster accountability and quality control/improvement. That being the case, how does the RAT doctor get time to practice diagnosing the viral myocarditis with fever? Or the short stay/fast track doctor practice their carotid VTIs after a passive leg raise? Should we trust the ultrasound guru who can get a good A4C view in the 200kg ventilated patient to always recognise the posterior fossa stroke in a patient with vertigo? I am not convinced these dilemmas are simply a matter of more education or a broader training curriculum. For me, as soon as I begin to become better at a particular skill, my ability in other advanced skills invariably starts to attenuate. So what kind of an EP should we try to train? And again, what model of emergency care do we want?

I agree with Mark – there just isn’t enough emergency critical care work to go around for everyone. Is there enough for EPs to keep their skills up? Is the critical care we provide “good enough” for the people who do roll through the door in compromised states, or should we leave it to the intensivists?

Most of the time our ED critical care is great. I think there are times when we can do better, however, and in the future it’s possible we may see the evolution of a more hybrid emergency department faculty to further improve patient care. FACEMs could bring to their departments different skill sets such as advanced echo skills, paediatrics, ongoing care provision, administration and logistics. They would be supported by having time to maintain their unique skill sets (possibly/probably outside of the ED), and operate as co-operative cogs in the day-to-day departmental sprocket, rather than trying to be an overheating dynamo aspiring to be excellent at everything for everyone. The ideal model won’t land in our laps, and it will be important to experiment with various styles and structures of care provision if we are to get there. Even if attempts to mix up the structural status quo fail, they’ll still be hopefully leading us closer to our wait-free ED shangri-las where patients are safe, staff are happy, and care is cutting edge but sensible. (And patients with acute ischaemic strokes are not thrombolysed except as part of ongoing randomised trials to identify the subset of patients who might actually benefit from the therapy.)

For the record, my ideal near future job would be 0.1 rotating to other units doing some sort of meaningful clinical work and building relationships with other departments, 0.3 critical care EP, 0.2 needle in haystack EP, 0.3 teaching EP, and 0.1 running the floor, boosting morale and talking trash in the fishbowl EP. If anyone’s advertising such a position in a few years time…

Postscript (in relation to “Where to for EM?”):
1) hospital gowns are rubbish. If there are any aspiring tailors out there with a new design of garment for patients to wear, get in touch because you’ve got three investors – thanks CK for the idea (however for the needle-in-haystack patients, their own clothes are probably fine)

2) I do not know how to stop the insanity of frequent obs other than through a culture of education and encouraging clinicians (doctors and nurses) to think sensibly. It isn’t just clinical observations/vital signs though: there is something seriously rotten in the house of medicine when you discover interns and HMOs filling out limitation of treatment/resus forms for toddlers and teenagers because there is a tick box on the generic admission form asking if it is done… (no solutions there sorry, only stones to throw)

A new use for the RIC

I sometimes work in departments other than my home shop. One of the problems I often encounter is needing to do procedures with kit that I’m unfamiliar with.

The most recent situation involved doing an ascitic tap. The shop I was working at didn’t have any angiocaths or dedicated paracentesis kits suitable for a timely therapeutic tap. A central line might have done the trick, but  have made the frustrating mistake of using a CVC to drain a pleural effusion once; resistance make drainage agonisingly slow.  The patient was obese as well as ascites-laden and the longest cannula I could find was 32mm – enough to penetrate the peritoneum (just!) but not long enough to reliably facilitate drainage without outward migration.

In the end what I did was wire the cannula and insert a rapid infusion catheter. With its build-in dilator/stiffener it got into the peritoneal cavity easily and drained the ascites at a very respectable rate.  The patient found it very comfortable although the hole it left was a bit leaky for a short time afterwards.