A patient presents with respiratory distress and COPD. She is very dramatic in her gestures, very upset and emotional. The first time you saw her you had given her lorazepam and sent her home. It turns out she frequently gets that. You and your colleagues eventually set boundaries on that but she continues to present daily for respiratory distress. This case turns out to involve the deeper human side of medicine. How do you access that?


How do we not only know medicine but know the human condition? Read Shakespeare? Go to bedside medicine skills sessions with actors? Do an ED fellowship in emergency psychiatry?


I particularly enjoyed reading the articles by Frederick Platt from the University of Colorado. He was an internist who would put on workshops on difficult patients/encounters. In role playing, the clinician would learn to recognize strong affect, stop, and name the affect. “I sense you are feeling…upset…scared…angry…etc.” The patient then is invited to explain their fears and concerns.


Emotions, as the Latin root “motere” tells us, serve to “move” us. They motivate us and impel us to action. They are faster and more intuitive than verbal language. But they are not enough for us. We need to move the patient from nonverbal to verbal expression.


“I sense you are feeling scared.”


The patient starts crying. You ask why she is scared.


She is afraid of dying.


You then address that fundamental concern with her. You write “fear of death” as the diagnosis, knowing that future providers can at a glance review the primary diagnosis for each visit. As your colleagues and you empathetically address her concerns, the visits drop from daily to weekly to a couple times a year. She starts taking care of herself better and gets off the sedatives.



-if there is strong affect, stop, name it, and inquire about it

-transition the patient from nonverbal to verbal communication

-identify the concerns and needs behind each visit with a question like “what concerns you the most?”

-review the post on agenda setting for related suggestions



Patients often lie about drug use and that can interfere with care. Part of practicing emergency medicine is using skill in communication to get through those communication pitfalls.


To get patients to tell the truth on drug use, start with asking about past use. Then ask current.


Furthermore, sometimes it helps to ask the question specifically In my area, I tend not to ask “do you use drugs?” I ask “did you try amphetamines when you were younger?”


If they answer affirmatively then can expand to “when was the last time?”


If you have doubts about their answer, you can say “may I test your urine and confirm?” Their response is often revealing.



-Ask about past drug use first

-Then ask about recent drug use

-Ask permission for a drug screen


Templates do not just facilitate documentation but also can guide bedside observations. The person taking a history who uses OLD-CARTS might be reminded to ask a dimension of a symptom that otherwise would not have been elicited.


What does it mean to say a child is “well-appearing” or “ill-appearing?” I find the GCS (Glasgow Coma Scale) categories to be helpful:


Eyes – is the child attentive with the eyes

Motor – is the child appropriately active/reactive

Verbal – is the level of social interaction appropriate for age (eg comforted by the arms of the mother).


Using GCS can stimulate a more detailed description of what we mean when we describe an ill-appearing child.



-Use the categories of GCS to detail what it means for a child to be “ill-appearing.”


There are two scenarios where you might see non-convulsive status epilepticus (NCSE):

-Presentation of coma

-Failure to rouse after seemingly successful treatment of a seizure (one article said up to 20% of status epilepticus generates NCSE after resolution of the convulsion)


The gold standard is 48 hours of continuous EEG monitoring. Unfortunately at many EDs we rarely can get EEG monitoring at all. Thus we need to be mindful of some subtle clinical signs.


Clinical signs or triggers that might prompt you to consider non-convulsive status epilepticus:

-***history of epilepsy in someone in an unexplained coma***

-volatile vital signs

-dilated pupils

-twitching (disrobe patients. May especially notice this around the eyes, where it is easier to see)



-failure to rouse after seizure could indicate non-convulsive status epilepticus

-unexplained coma in someone with a history of epilepsy should trigger this possibility

-Disrobe the patient and look for subtle signs of twitching

-Consider autonomic signs – vital signs, pupils


Here is a potential airway technique that may help with visualization: hold the laryngoscope in the left hand (the usual) but the right hand, instead of being at your side, is behind the patient’s head. You then move it around until you get the best view. Then you have an assistant hold the head in that spot.


A hospital in Southern California started doing that. The technique deserves some exploration. The work of Richard Levitan reminds us that the airway is most patent in the sniffing position. Extension does not really help but true sniffing position does. Sometimes you think you have enough and you need more.


I have not seen this technique studied but it probably deserves some attention.



-Consider external cephalic manipulation as an analogy to “external laryngeal manipulation” as a way of fine tuning the visualization during a tough intubation


A patient presents with severe sore throat. You wonder about epiglottitis. You know that using a mirror to look at the epiglottis is a great way to check this but are not confident in your skills. What do you need?


Dental mirror – they are cheap, have your ED stock them


Light – can use a headlamp, the kind that are sold in outdoor stores. Get one with a spot beam rather than a flood light. Nice to have regular AAA batteries instead of the medical ones with cords that are always getting lost or damaged


Relaxed patient – explain to them what you are doing and rehearse it once first


Anatomy – have them lean forward, chin out


View – wrap gauze around their tongue. Don’t pull it out but hold it so they don’t have to sustain muscle contraction to keep the tongue out


No gag – not sure topical anesthetics really work. Try to avoid hitting their pharynx with the mirror until you are ready to lift the uvula and look. Have the patient fix vision in the distance. Have them say “eeeeeee.” Have them do slow panting style shallow breathing.


No fog – hydrogen peroxide or hot water will help prevent fogging


You look and it is hard to see. That reminds us the final thing you need – practice!



-Indirect laryngoscopy is a complex hand-eye skill that you can learn

-Get the right supplies and start doing this now. It may really help you one day.


A patient presents with a deep muscle abscess. Is this necrotizing fasciitis? All too often I see the deliberation focus on things like the laboratory score or the imaging. The role of those things are being debated but what is beyond debate is to have the bedside skills for recognizing necrotizing infections.


Childers in 2001 and 2002 described the finger test as a diagnostic intervention at the bedside. It does not get enough attention. The instructions are to make a 2 cm incision down to fascia. “…if the tissues dissect with minimal resistance, the finger test is positive”


Other signs:

-lack of bleeding

-grey necrotic tissue

-dishwater purulence


There is no reason ED physicians should not know this and perform it. We are already making incisions to check for abscess. Know the 4 surgical signs of necrotizing fasciitis.



The 4 surgical signs of necrotizing fasciitis are:

-lack of resistant to finger spread

-lack of bleeding

-grey necrotic tissue

-dishwater purulence


Childers BJ Necrotizing fasciitis: a fourteen-year retrospective study of 163 consecutive patients. Am Surg. 2002;68:109-16.


Andreasen TJ, Green SD, Childers BJ. Massive infectious soft-tissue injury: diagnosis and management of necrotizing fasciitis and purpura fulminans. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2001;107:1025-35.


An infant presents with fever. The parents do not want a catheter placed in his penis. You want to check for urine infection. The resident suggests placing a bag. Are there any other options?


In 2013 Herreros-Fernendez described a technique of coaxing the child to urinate. She would tap the bladder at a rate of 100 taps per minute, and massage the low back. 86% of the time the child would urinate, with a median of 45 seconds. The population was strictly those less than 30 days of age, so it may not apply to older babies. The idea was inspired by bladder stimulation techniques used in adults with neurological diseases. There may be some element of a frontal lobe “release” reflex involved in the phenomenon.


The original study stacked the odds in their favor by feeding the babies, but follow-up studies all showed a greater than 50% success rate within 5 minutes. Thus, this technique is well worth trying in a low risk population.


Of note, the bladder tapping was 100 taps per minute. It is supposed to be gentle but the parents may quickly throw in the towel and ask for the catheter.


Take Home Points

-For the infant with a low suspicion of urinary tract infection, consider massage and bladder tapping to elicit a urination reflex


Herreros Fernández ML et al. A new technique for fast and safe collection of urine in newborns. Arch Dis Child. 2013;98:27-9.


You are seeing a patient with suspected pneumonia. Your attending hears crackles but you do not hear them. Later the radiograph shows pneumonia right where the attending heard crackles. What can you do to improve your pulmonary examination?


Sit up and take a deep breath might be bad advice?


Increase signal

Sensitivity for auscultation of crackles is increased in the supine position. Should you always listen supine? No. That is hard to do because anterior is less helpful and posterior requires you to squeeze the stethoscope behind their supine back. But be aware it is an option if you need to increase the sensitivity for the physical examination.


You can make crackles more easily discerned by varying your exam. If it sounded too quiet have them take a deeper breath.


Decrease noise

Should they always take a deep breath? No. That can increase other noise if they make upper respiratory noises. Have the patient take a “full and quiet” breath. That might be best for minimizing noise and maximizing signal.


Take Home Points:

-“Sit up and take a deep breath” is not the only way to do a lung examination

-Increase signal by auscultating the supine back

-Decrease noise by asking the patient to breathe deeply, but quietly


An elderly patient presents with cough and shortness of breath. The resident says the lung examination is normal and the chest x-ray is negative and wants to send the patient home. But you hear crackles posteriorly at the right base. And the oxygen saturation is 94%. And the patient looks ill. What do you do?


If your practice is to use chest radiograph as the gold standard for pneumonia (following IDSA guidelines – Mandell 2007) then you might be missing pneumonia. In medicine we tend (alas) to assume our reference standards are disease-defining until we compare them against something else.


Against CT scan, chest radiograph is probably about 75% sensitive and specific for pneumonia. Often the literature does not give exact numbers but false negatives and false positives are extensively documented. Where sensitivity is reported, it can be as low as 44%.(Self Am J Emergency Medicine 2013 – from a datebase of PE workups) A more representative finding for sensitivity is 77% (Ye PLoS One 2015). Good, but not perfect. Other studies show significant false positive rates (Clasessens Am J Resp Crit Care Med 2015). Specificity is probably also about 75% but we do not yet have a precise estimate of that. And of course there are significant differences between a supine 1 view chest radiograph in an altered patient and a 2 view standing radiograph with tidal volume inspiration.


Your overall accuracy is not doomed by limited tests. Your accuracy depends on how well you formulate Bayesian “prior probability” BEFORE applying results of tests. Of course, if you don’t want to do that there is always pulmonary ultrasound, with 95% sensitivity (Ye PLoS One 2015). But let’s talk bedside medicine.


The classical clinical signs of pneumonia are:




-asymmetric breath sounds


-progression of symptoms after 3-5 days


Steven McGee’s Evidence-Based Physical Diagnosis has an excellent chapter on this topic. It essentially supports the classical findings but reminds us of their limitations too.


Back to the case. You have a moderate clinical suspicion and you are aware that the gold standard is flawed. Do you order an ultrasound? CT? Do you start empiric antibiotics? Do you recommend next day follow-up? In this case you desire to admit the patient because she appears ill. But the utilization case manager and hospitalist argue that the admission does not meet Interqual criteria. They say it is impossible for a patient to have pneumonia without a positive chest x-ray and besides, the patient does not even have a fever (oral temperature).


You palpate the temperature at the neck with the back of your hand and leave it there for 5 seconds, and feel a tingle – this is a fever. The RN confirms the rectal temperature is 103. You perform a bedside ultrasound and find mild hepatization and a few air bronchograms in the area where you heard crackles. They do not accept the legitimacy of that test, despite the literature.


You order a CT scan and the radiologist confirms a moderate size consolidation, interpreted as pneumonia, at the exact area where you heard crackles hours before.



-Chest x-ray has limitations in sensitivity and specificity for pneumonia (probably about 75% for each)

-If you do a thorough physical examination with attention to heart rate, oxygenation, and auscultation then the CXR is probably adequate for most patients.

-When you need more information, consider pulmonary ultrasound, or CT scan of the chest.