The EMBER Project

Why is the CDC Still Selling Tamiflu?

In a recent post I asked,” Who are the Stewards of Healthcare?” The CDC comes to mind. Its roll to protect the public from diseases both new and old make it an important pillar of our public health system. The CDC was certainly trying to fulfill its role last week when it notified us about emerging concerns that this years flu vaccine might have reduced efficacy due to antigenic drift. Despite this news, the vaccine may still have some efficacy and likely remains a useful tool in the prevention of influenza and its complications.

This CDC update unfortunately also came with a marketing plug that couldn’t have made the makers of Tamiflu more ecstatic:

Because of the detection of these drifted influenza A (H3N2) viruses, this CDC Health Advisory is being issued to re-emphasize the importance of the use of neuraminidase inhibitor antiviral medications when indicated for treatment and prevention of influenza, — CDC advisory 12/4/14

Apparently, the CDC felt this was a wonderful opportunity to throw its weight behind a dubious class of drugs, and does not feel obliged to protect the public or precious healthcare dollars from unscrupulous drug companies. If you go to the CDC website it seems that despite all evidence to the contrary, antivirals to treat flu should be taken early and often by almost everyone.

“Can flu be treated” they ask? The answer is YES. Who should take it? If your young, your old, your really sick or you just want to feel better, then take it. Of course the page is careful worded, to avoid criticism, but the implication is clear: if your a doctor  prescribe this drug; if your a patient ask for it. If you don’t you’re not following standard of care. Many doctors who read this, will hear “give it to your patients, come on what’s the harm, and if you don’t, then won’t you feel terrible when you realize it’s your fault Mrs Smith’s grandmother died because she didn’t get the Tamiflu?” This type of powerful marketing is what continues to make Tamiflu a multimillion dollar bonanza for its manufacturer.

Yet this flies in the face of everything we know about the drug. Current evidence shows it is not preventing disease, or saving lives, or even preventing complications of the disease. In fact some of the evidence is still being hidden by the drug company who makes Tamiflu, and unpublished negative studies that the company hid for years had be forced into the open.

You expect drug companies to aggressively market their wares, but the CDC is entrusted to hold the public interest above all things. Given the recent FDA furor over Zohydro and its approval of this potentially harmful drug (against the advice of even of its own independent advisory panel) it makes you wonder if now the CDC can also be trusted when it comes to its drug approval process.

Endorsing drugs like Tamiflu with no strong evidence of benefit, drains the system of critical resources and fills doctor’s offices and ERs with patients who have an expectation of getting ‘the Tamiflu prescription” –while they inadvertently spread the virus around to others — it undermines public trust in an important institution, and reenforces the idea that marketing and corporate influence come before public health and safety.

What can we do? Hospitals and doctors should be taking the lead on upholding the public trust if the CDC won’t. Talk to your peers, review the evidence, and define a department or hospital policy. Give doctors support to do what they think is the right thing based on the evidence, not on CDC recommendations. Most importantly talk to your patients so that they can make informed decisions.

The Cochrane Collaboration

Bottom Line

  • Reduced mortality: NO
  • Prevents hospitalizations: NO
  • Makes people feel better faster: maybe slightly, but trade of off is about an equal number of bad side-effects (fewer days with fever and mylagias more with nausea and vomiting)
  • Helps high risk or sicker people: NO
  • Industry sponsored research: YES
  • Negative research results were hidden or suppressed: YES
  • Drug has been aggressively marketed for everything from the flu to bioterrorism preparedness, wasting millions of healthcare dollars with no proven benefit: YES

Surgical Airway Summary


Our online walkabout on the emergency surgical airway is coming to an end. I hope you’ve found this helpful, I know I enjoyed doing it. The emergent cricothyroidotomy presents many educational challenges. It is a high stakes, low-frequency procedure performed in the stressful failed airway situation, where time is not on your side.

Preparing yourself for this scenario requires several key technical and non-technical skills outlined in summary here:

  • A working knowledge of airway anatomy and the confidence to quickly identify important anatomical landmarks.
  • Familiarity with the necessary procedural skills – ideally practiced and reviewed in cadaver as well as sim labs so that the muscle memory is there when you need it.
  • Situational awareness: a term that encompasses the logistical, emotional and psychological skills necessary to take appropriate and effective action. In this case it is defined by how effectively you can identify the failed airway and move through the failed airway algorithm in order to put scalpel to skin. It includes the recognition of normalcy bias and focus lock and the danger of repetitive attempts at laryngoscopy to the hypoxic patient,

This exercise is not a substitute for good clinical training, rather it is designed to highlight key concepts by drawing together disparate online resources into a coherent and educational narrative. As the name EMBER Project (EM Bundles & Education Research) suggests, our goal is to provide bundles of educational material and to discover innovative ways to bring it to you. This time. the entire bundle of resources presented over the last couple of weeks, along with commentary and opinions from other physicians and experts will be up on the EMBER Project’s Facebook page and on Storify today for review – and for future reference. Please join the conversation and add your insight. Until then, may the airway be ever in your favor!


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May the Airway be Ever in Your Favor!

May the Airway be Ever In Your Favor

May the Airway be Ever In Your Favor

Presentation for the 2014 Airway Course @NYP

This year I’m giving the lecture on emergency cricothyrotomy at our annual airway course. This is a relatively simple procedure, but it’s mastery presents several training challenges. Beyond knowledge of relevant anatomy, and familiarity with a rarely performed procedure, this low frequency event almost always occurs in the high stress/high stakes environment of the failed airway.

Success in this environment requires more than knowledge of anatomy, or familiarity with the steps of a procedure: it demands leadership and teamwork, situational awareness, logistical preparedness, and insight into how the mind works in moments of stress. Unless you can move quickly through the failed airway algorithm and arrive at the point where scalpel meets skin then your technical knowledge is useless.

Over the next two weeks the EMBER Project’s daily posts will highlight these technical and non-technical skills related to the surgical airway, and the environment in which it is performed. We will curate some great online resources, and guide you through a multiplicity of concepts to create a clearly demarcated roadmap to master the material. After the course “The EMBER” (a bundle of online resources) will be posted on Storify in a concise format that will offer a permanent reference and future resource for review.

If you’re attending the course, this will be an essential addition to your learning, and will prep your knowledge base for the upcoming sim and cadaver lab work. For others who want a good review, this is a free and open access resource. Before getting started, I want to thank all the great educators and airway experts out there out there, who have taken the time to make their experience and knowledge available to all of us.

The adventure will get started in earnest tomorrow, so get ready for some cricothyrotomy madness by following here, AND on Facebook or Twitter to get the full program. See you at the head of the bed, and may the airway be ever in your favor!



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Can Anyone Tell Me How I Got Here?

Tales of the Cunningham technique and one EP’s eventual journey to success through reverse engineering

The successful practice of medicine hinges on two things. A detailed grasp of medical knowledge, and being able to translate that knowledge into a positive patient interaction. For the emergency physician sometimes it’s a crash intubation, sometimes it’s talking to an elderly patient who lives alone about nursing home placement after their 4th visit to the ED in a week.

Whatever the road to a positive outcome for our patients, all physicians experience the nausea of staring into the dark chasm between knowledge and practice. Like neural dendrites gingerly reaching out to make a connection, the journey starts as a tenuous thread in the dark and can eventually become a well-lit pathway with clear signposts if given the right encouragement.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: 1720–1778. An Italian artist famous for his etchings of fictitious and atmospheric “prisons”. He was a strong influence on the work of M.C Escher and his “impossible constructions”.

For me today the path comes in the form of learning the Cunningham technique for shoulder reductions. It’s no secret I’ve always liked doing joint reductions. Ask any of my colleagues and they’ll tell you I’m the first to jump in and help putting a displaced body part back where it belongs. I take satisfaction in doing them quickly, efficiently, and with minimal pain. I also like my patients to be happy with the whole experience; so it’s been a natural evolution for me to become enamored of a technique that requires less time, sedation or analgesia, and that makes my patients happy.

I started using the Cunningham technique about a year ago and I’ve refrained from writing about it until I had enough reduction attempts under my belt to make a post worthwhile. I think I’ve done about two dozen shoulders or more this way now, and I’m four out of five in the last two months (five out of five if you count some scapular manipulation added to one of them).

Like anything new I had plenty of failure in the beginning, and when I did achieve success I had no idea why, and couldn’t have reproduced it even if you put a gun to my head. Now I’ve reached a tipping point, and the Cunningham technique makes doing shoulder reductions feel almost like magic. Often I can see the signs of success begin to appear even before the humeral head slips gracefully into place. No secondary trauma, time-outs, sedation, traction/counter-traction, twisting, pulling or other nonsense.

How did this tipping point happen? Of course that’s the challenge of learning and subsequently teaching medicine.  It has never been a straight line from medical knowledge to clinical practice. Success requires absorbing a skill-set distributed across a multitude of strategies. Within these strategies are embedded a deep understanding of context, relationships, and timing; a detailed knowledge of our tools, and the logistics required to employ them. That “magic” experience of success is the emotional summation that all the pieces coming together to achieve a something good for one of your patients.  It’s one of the reasons I love my job.

However that “magic” experience of success is also why the signposts to it are so often invisible and thus difficult to teach. The signposts were there, but before you were in the dark. Now, you look back and wonder why you didn’t see them before.  It’s so obvious. But it’s the mind’s illusion that suddenly the light just went on.  In fact, a closer examination reveals an unconscious accumulation of multiple tools arranged across an array of skill-sets that allow you to consistently reproduce good outcomes.

How do you illuminate some of those signposts for yourself and others walking the path?  I don’t know exactly, It’s one of the reasons the EMBER project was started – a reverse engineering process in education.  Here are some of the signposts I’ve marked along my path with this particular technique that have helped me improve my success rate. They remind me that being a physician is about knowledge and skill, but also about context and relationships, pattern identification and intuition, resource management and logistics.

  1. Get the patient on board. Like most procedures on awake patients it requires co-operation, so explaining what you need them to do before you start and talking them through it is key. I like to think of it as a coach/player relationship. They are doing the work, you’re simply encouraging, leading and imparting knowledge. I also find that many patients find this active participation very satisfying and empowering. They get to share in the success.
  2. A little tincture of analgesia is never a bad thing, but once you get comfortable doing this you need very little or none at all.  The key is sizing up your patient.  Since there is no significant force or traction applied, if your patient is comfortable before the procedure, they will likely be comfortable during it. If they are uncomfortable before you start you’re going to have trouble, so give them something.  If they’re anxious treat the anxiety, if they’re in pain, treat the pain. Removing these barriers to success prior to an attempt at reduction just makes sense.
  3. Work on visualizing the anatomical and mechanical obstructions to reducing the shoulder. Surgeons have the advantage of being able to review this anatomy frequently in the operating theater, but we don’t have that luxury, so we must work with palpation, surface anatomy, and a visual image in our minds of the anatomic relationships. Use your eyes, your hands, and your mind to “see” the position of the humeral head and the barriers to slipping it back in place.
  4. The ideal position for the glenoid fossa is achieved by moving the scapula posteriorly and rotating it inferiorly.  This is achieved by having the patient sit up straight, adducting the rhomboids and having the patient drop their shoulders towards the ground. This is why having the patient sit in a chair is helpful and also reminding them repeatedly to sit up straight. It’s also why a touch of scapular manipulation by a partner can help in resistant reductions.
  5. The ideal position for the head of the humerus is to place the humerus in adduction with gentle internal rotation to present a greater articular surface to the glenoid fossa superiorly and laterally. This is why having the patient in front of you with your body to the outside of their affected arm is helpful to allow gentle physical reminders to keep their elbow in towards their body. Often I will stand or sit close to patient’s elbow to unconsciously force them to keep their elbow in and their arm internally rotated.
  6. Once the bones are in position it’s all about relaxing the muscles of the shoulder to overcome the dynamic forces that are pulling on the humeral head and trapping it, usually in a sub-glenoid or sub-coracoid location. This is why flexing the elbow and having them rest their hand on your shoulder is effective.
  7. Massaging the biceps, upper trapezius, and deltoid are equal parts physical and emotional. It is comforting, and it relaxes the mind and the muscles of the patient allowing the dislocated humeral head to “unlock” itself from its current uncomfortable position.
  8. Resist the urge to pull.  Remember muscle spindles?  Those sensory receptors within the belly of the muscle will actively resist excessive traction and make the spasming worse.  Once you are in the cycle of pulling and feeling resistance you are in a battle that can only be won at the cost of more force and likely sedation. There is also a psychology to this. If you radiate a relaxed and calm persona your patient can feel this and also begin to relax.  If you have sweat pouring from your face while you grimace and pull how can you expect anyone near you to be relaxed. Slow and gentle is the key.

Occasionally I have to revert to another method of reduction, or supplement this technique with scapular manipulation, but this is definitely the option I pick before anything else now. Once you feel the beauty of a non-traumatic reduction requiring no force you will never want to go back.  In my career I’ve gone from Conan the barbarian with heavy sedation, and traction-counter traction to Jedi mind trick:  “This is not the Propofol you’re looking for…”

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So You Have a Plan Right?

I saw a patient on the Big Island of Hawaii with serious intracranial bleeding on Pradaxa. Now it’s rural here, which means a dearth of specialty care. And so three months ago when his brilliant doctor in a major city on the mainland, switched him to Pradaxa for his atrial fibrillation (so he wouldn’t have to check his INR while he got settled comfortably into his retirement in Hawaii) his fate was sealed.  He arrived at the nearest hospital to him which had no intervention other than Vitamin K.  No platelets, no FFP, no neurosurgeon. Rapid diagnosis and a flight to Oahu for neuro/icu care was still meant several hours of continued bleeding. Things did not go well for him.

After I got home that night I watched the news about BP settling its federal lawsuit and I thought, what do the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Pradaxa have in common?  It seems obvious that any endeavor with a potential for serious risk should have a clear plan to deal with the most likely adverse outcome(s). In the case of offshore drilling, you shouldn’t be looking for oil at 1800 feet below seal level if you don’t have a viable plan to contain an oil spill.  In the case of Pradaxa, you shouldn’t be giving anticoagulants to patients if you don’t have a viable plan for  the most likely adverse outcome, bleeding. It’s really just asking for trouble.

To highlight this problem, the management of an overdose with the new oral anticoagulants was recently published and then discussed on one of my favorite blogs, The Poison Review, and the most notable revelation about these collaborative guidelines is that the best option ten organizations who focus on thrombosis and anticoagulation could come up with was, wait for it, wait for it….SUPPORTIVE CARE.

I understand that anticoagulation in certain patients is a valuable tool. But we all know the rapid spread of highly marketed medications to questionable patient populations is a given, and we already have an effective anticoagulant, it’s called Coumadin. Coumadin is far from perfect and the search for safer, more user-friendly medications is a worthwhile endeavor, but let’s be honest, we’re still far from a perfect solution.

Is Pradaxa safer? Did it show benefit over Coumadin? No. But when you watch the  ads for Pradaxa it sounds like huge benefit. Of course the fine print is that the benefit was found in patients with sub-therapeutic INR.  Maybe it’s not as “convenient” as the newer drugs, but even with reversal agents this medication causes a lot of morbidity, hospitalization, and death. So please explain to me how an expensive drug gets mass marketed before there is a way to appropriately treat the potentially fatal side effects when there is an equally effective drug we can reverse?  Never mind, I know the answer…


(As always, a collection of emergency medicine focused resources for our topic)

Guidelines for reversing overdose of dabigatran (Pradaxa) and other new anticoagulants

Anti-coagulated Patients In The ED – LITFL

Dabigatran (Pradaxa®) Principles and Guidance for the Reversal of Effect and Management of Life Threatening or Major Bleeding

Paucis Verbis: Overanticoagulation and supratherapeutic INR

Anticoagulation Reversal – ERCAST

iPhone Apps Now On Pinterest

1944, Howard Hathaway Aiken completes development of the Harvard MKI “Difference Engine

Medical technology has come a long way in the last century. It’s also become more personally useful. I love my iPhone and the peripheral brain it allows me to carry around.  I ask it questions all day long: “what’s the dose of that medication?  What is the starting rate for that drip? How sick is this patient with pancreatitis? Does this patient need a head CT? What are the normal vitals for that 11 pound infant? Where’s the nearest 24 hour pharmacy? Is my favorite coffee shop still open?”

Image of my current iPhone medical applications

The problem is it’s almost impossible to sift through the thousands of medical apps now on iTunes and find the ones that are good for working EPs.  I’ve written about some of my favorite apps before, but now with the advent of Pinterest I can collect them all for you in one place.  Check out the “Tools to Live By” board and find links to the full collection of medical apps I currently have on my iPhone.  If you have others you love, please leave it in the comments, or send them my way so that I can add them to the collection or review them here.

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All Together Now

Some of you may have noticed an upgrade to The EMBER Project’s Facebook page. The rapidly changing internet landscape opens up incredible opportunities for emergency physicians to learn and share online. It also presents challenges on how to stay up to date effectively in a wired world. The Facebook page is rapidly becoming the solution by acting as a nexus for The EMBER Project’s various social media platforms.

Currently The EMBER Project’s Facebook page is the central repository and distribution site for updates from our Blog as well as feeds from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Evernote. Each of these platforms offers a different learning opportunity; a chance to share information in exciting new ways that make emergency medicine online more interesting than ever before.

Now, when you go to our Facebook page you will continue to see all blog posts and other updates on the timeline, but you will also see links to each of the various feeds (Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, Evernote). If you LIKE us on the Facebook page you’ll get regular updates from our various platforms all in one place.

The EMBER Project is almost six months old and continues to evolve; I’m excited to explore the various possibilities of our new updated online presence.

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