Emergency department thoracotomy (EDT) is a dramatic but rarely lifesaving intervention. Clinical variability regarding indications for EDT has yet to be quantified. Members of the Eastern and American Associations for the Surgery of Trauma were questioned by mail to evaluate which clinical and demographic factors influence the decision to perform EDT and whether physicians perform EDT in accordance with current practice guidelines.Methods
A single mailing of an anonymous survey was sent to 1,124 surgeons to collect institutional and physician demographics as well as indications for EDT on the basis of variable mechanisms of trauma, duration of arrest, and signs of life (SOL). Statistical analysis included the Pearson and linear-by-linear association χ2 tests, independent samples t test, and univariate and multivariate analyses of variance;p values of < 0.05 were considered significant.Results
Completed surveys were received from 358 respondents. After 54 surveys were excluded that were incomplete, late, or from noneligible respondents, 304 surveys were analyzed. There were no significant differences in EDT indications among institutions of differing caseload volume, exposure to penetrating trauma, trauma level designation, American College of Surgeons verification status, or residency program affiliation. In addition, neither the respondent’s position nor whether attendings versus residents performed the majority of EDTs influenced clinical decision-making. Performance criteria for EDT were liberal in comparison with established guidelines, especially for blunt trauma. The presence or recent loss of SOL influenced responses, but respondents varied greatly in their definition of SOL.Conclusion
A lack of agreement exists regarding the indications for EDT in multiple clinical scenarios as well as in defining SOL. Indications for EDT were liberal, especially for blunt trauma-related indications, and were determined by clinical parameters, not by physician or institutional factors. Our results suggest that clinical practice is at variance with Advanced Trauma Life Support guidelines. We recommend that practice guidelines for EDT be established on the basis of a consensus definition of SOL to allow for a more uniform and selective approach to EDT.