Cricothyroidotomy – considerations for teaching & simulation

Earlier this week I posted about the integration of a cric task-trainer at ARHT. I’ve decided to follow this up with some general evidence about cricothyroidotomy training.

The data regarding technique selection for cricothyroidotomy exists primarily in the context of simulation. It would be impossible to run a trial to compare techniques in real patients given the rarity of the scenario. In general, there are two types of techniques: 1) open or surgical cricothyroidotomy 2) percutaneous or needle cricothyroidotomy. I tend to favor an open technique (and maybe with a bougie)  given the simplicity but there is some evidence to support the needle method. There is a nice  Below is a brief outline of some evidence-based considerations for anyone involved in training clinicians for cric performance.

Needle vs. Open

  • Randomized trial of emergency physicians performing surgical and percutaneous cricothyroidotomy on cadavers. Time to first ventilation was significantly longer using the surgical technique (108 seconds vs. 136 seconds) while there were significantly more injuries to surrounding structures using the open technique (6 thyroid vessel injuries vs. none)
  • Authors concluded results tend to favor percutaneous technique
  • I’m quite surprised that time was shorter with the percutaneous technique – interesting result!

Alternative techniques

Time to Completion 

  • Highly dependent on when the timer starts but regardless everyone agrees time is important! And less is more!
  • 40 seconds was achievable in one study – time to skin palpation to first ventilation when all equipment was laid out
  • 95 seconds (mean) was recorded in another study as time from first grasping cric equipment to first ventilation

Number of times to achieve competence

  • Debatable whether experience = competence
  • Performance times plateau after 4 attempts (using a manikin)
  • Very little evidence to support number of times needed especially since all evidence is manikins or cadavers

Room for improvement as an inter-disciplinary approach

  • Several studies show that often it’s the surgeon performing cricothyroidotomies in emergent settings (article 1, article 2
  • This has important training implications – we should be training as a trauma team and incorporating the trauma team during in-situ simulation
  • EM teachers & educators must also be aware of this issue and work with surgeons so that they understand cricothyroidotomy is completely within the scope of practice for EM physicians (or anyone who performs RSI)

Some High Quality Learning (FOAMed)

Cricothyroidotomy training for the pre-hospital setting


Newest addition to the ARHT simulation centre. Cricothyroidotomy task trainers built from old manikins. Rolled them out successfully last week with our paramedics using them for the first training session.

One of my medical education interests is looking at how we train and practice rarely performed procedures. For these situations, simulation offers an excellent method of training. The challenge, however, is recreating the fidelity of such situations since many rarely performed procedures are quite invasive.  Often we’ll start the training with a task-trainer like model and then progress to a full size manikin. Task-trainers are simulation models specifically designed for one type of procedure. 

In emergency and pre-hospital medicine, the cricothyroidotomy is among the most invasive, time critical yet rarely performed procedures. In addition to the potential technical challenges of this procedure, the decision to perform a cric might be even more difficult.  Identifying a “can’t intubate, can’t ventilate” scenario and then to “pull the trigger” may be one of the hardest cognitive leaps we face in resuscitation.  For example, last week, in the  Auckland emergency department we ran an in-situ simulation scenario for the registrars that required the performance of a cricothyroidotomy. The goal of the simulation was only to perform a cric…in fact, we even gave the registrar team a heads up that the patient would required a cric. Amazingly while we only used a task trainer that didn’t even allow for intubation, the trainees still tried to proceed with intubation. There was considerable reluctance to finally acknowledge that it was a “can’t intubate, can’t ventilate” situation.  I don’t think we train enough to practice taking that cognitive leap to the final step in the failed airway algorithm. Even this short little scenario provided evidence that such scenarios require practice and should be simulated.

This past week at the base we rolled out our cricothyroidotomy task trainers. We constructed our trainers based on a model created by Agnes Ryzynski & Dr. Jordan Tarshis at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. They described the creation of such task trainers using old/broken manikin heads and some innovation using easily found products within the hospital. The value of such a trainer extends beyond its simplicity as it also  maintains good fidelity, it costs less than $30 to make and it recycles old manikin heads! 
Such a trainer might supplement an even lower fidelity construction depending on the setting. At the ARHT, our go-to method for cricothyroidotomy is a bougie-assisted technique which is described in this article and video. We’ve selected this technique based on simplicity in the field and relatively minimal equipment required. But there’s good debate out there whether these should be performed using the needle or surgical approach. Scott Orman (ED physician and blog author for wrote about the topic last week with some great links.

You can see from the pictures, that the paramedics have set up on the left side of the patient. We were trying out different approaches and set ups to find out what works best. Personally, I prefer the right side of the patient. In our setting within the helicopter  we only have access to the patient’s right side. As a result, there may be some benefit to be on the right side. The ergonomics of such a high stakes procedure are probably understated so training in the same way that you’ll perform the procedure is essential. I acknowledge that you might need to be a bit flexible regarding setup but in general, the airway team should be well prepared and anticipate where equipment and personnel will be placed.

Here’s a few more pictures of our training day.










Next post will have a bit more about the evidence base around cric performance.


Some new evidence about requirements of chest tubes for patients who underwent needle decompression in pre-hospital.

Auckland HEMS

The authors of a recent study tried to answer this question. The authors evaluated patients who got needle decompression in the field using prospective, observational methodology (though I wonder if truly prospective given the lack of data). Anyways, they noted that in their population very few patients (5/52 decompressions) escaped without requiring a follow-up chest tube. Only 1/15 penetrating trauma patients did not get a chest tube.  A few important questions remain including how many of the needle decompressions actually reached the pleural cavity or the technique used for decompression (appears later in Q&A that it was probably anterior axillary line). 

The authors conclude to have a low threshold for chest tube insertion based on CXR however, not shockingly a CT chest will provide more information. This study certainly doesn’t support withholding a chest drain if needle decompression is performed in the field. There was a nice suggesting by another…

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Deception and misdirection – Is being “unethical” a bad thing during medical simulation?

This week’s post was prompted from a recent set of articles in the journal Simulation in Healthcare. Until recently, I’ve given little thought to purposeful deception during  simulation scenarios. Often scenarios are designed to be somewhat “tricky” with a key learning point. This often takes place by incorporating a random medical fact/concept that the learner may not pick up. For example, the seizing patient in refractory status epilepticus…if the participants took a proper history from the family they would have found out that patient has recently started treatment for tuberculosis. The diagnosis of INH induced seizures would be clinched  But what about when you purposefully try to mess with the participants and actually challenge their personality, their ability to behave as a physician and arguably break the psychological safety that should exist within a simulation? Is this beneficial or does such a scenario inhibit learning? optical-illusion-man

I’d like to review and comment on the articles and editorials published in the most recent edition Simulation in Healthcare. The article is a description about how simulation was used to test/study medical hierarchy during a medical resuscitation.

The authors (pediatric intensivists) implemented a scenario where a young child was critically ill with hyperkalemia resulting in a dysrhythmia and incidental hypophosphatemia. The team leader (who was a confederate) was scripted to order potassium phosphate to replace the low phosphate, however, this would also result in death of the simulated patient. The learners (ICU residents/fellows) had some idea that a team leader (staff intensivist) would appear part way through the case but were unaware that such hierarchy conflict would emerge. The team leader confederate was instructed to comply by not administering the drug only if the team demonstrated repeated or sustained challenges in giving this potentially deadly medication. The authors describe running the scenario 3 times and reported the following responses:

  1. Appropriate, successful challenge of drug administration and team leader complied
  2. Appropriate challenge but delayed resulting in delayed appropriate management
  3. The order was not challenged and the simulated patient died

What are you thoughts after reading this? Do you have a visceral reaction that this was a good or bad idea?

My opinion is that in the right circumstances with trained educators I think this is extremely powerful, useful and should be part of the educational toolbox. There’s an accompanying editorial where the authors have raise multiple concerns about this approach which I won’t reiterate – all of which are valid. Though interestingly they also provide well written counter arguments in anticipation of how others may respond.

Simulation scenarios that address non-medical aspects that can lead to patient harm should be simulated. While I agree that this type of case probably is best administered by an experienced simulation educator with highly skilled participants, I disagree with the editorial which suggests that such scenarios should be avoided. They were concerned that this may cause the participant to think:

“Am I the kind of person who is unwilling or unable to challenge a respected colleague who I think is making bad medical judgments, even when this may result in serious injury to the patient, or even death”

I would argue (like the study’s authors) that with proper briefing regarding the educational purpose of the simulation and adequate de-briefing to explore the cognitive decision points that resulted in the patient’s outcome, then learning can be achieved. The degree of deception should be related to experience level of the participants since junior learners would unlikely benefit from such a difficult scenario. However, increasingly, we recognize that teamwork and crew resource management (CRM) play an important role in how we care for patients. Our non-technical skills and awareness to our own cognitive biases during critical situations has considerable impact on patient outcomes.  It’s inevitable that during critical situations we may face challenging interpersonal interactions or difficult decisions.  We should train by pushing the limits of the team and the system. I acknowledge there are some who are concerned regarding the disregard for psychological safety during such simulations. I argue that with proper approaches that psychological safety can be managed. Furthermore we can do a much better job controlling the psychological safety of a simulation than we can simply leaving learners to fend for themselves during a real-life situation where not only their psychological safety is at stake, but the medical safety of the patient is at risk.

The argument that we should study this more before widespread use is reasonable but I’m not sure that results from one centre will be applicable to others. The validity of such studies remains challenging to say the least. Certainly larger studies will help, but meanwhile simulations including misdirections or deceptions that challenge not only technical knowledge but interpersonal and team dynamics should be supported.


Abstract from cited article above 

Case & Commentary: Using Simulation to Address Hierarchy Issues During Medical Crises. Calhoun AW et al. Simul Healthc. 2013; 8(1):13-19

Medicine is hierarchical, and both positive and negative effects of this can be exposed and magnified during a crisis. Ideally, hierarchies function in an orderly manner, but when an inappropriate directive is given, the results can be disastrous unless team members are empowered to challenge the order. This article describes a case that uses misdirection and the possibility of simulated ‘‘death’’ to facilitate learning among experienced clinicians about the potentially deadly effects of an unchallenged, inappropriate order. The design of this case, however, raises additional questions regarding both ethics and psychological safety. The ethical concerns that surround the use of misdirection in simulation and the psychological ramifications of incorporating patient death in this context are explored in the commentary. We conclude with a discussion of debriefing strategies that can be used to promote psychological safety during potentially emotionally charged simulations and possible directions for future research. (Sim Healthcare 8:13Y19, 2013)










NEJM commentary on service in medical education – They got it wrong.

Last week there was a very interesting perspective/editorial published in the NEJM. But one that I thought deserves some comment because I strongly disagreed with the authors. In fact, I thought it was unfortunate to see this commentary in such a widely read journal.

The title was “Service: An Essential Component of Graduate Medical Education“. It was authored by two Boston physicians (both appear to be oncologists). The authors outline their concern that service should be seen as an educational objective that shouldn’t be minimized, instead “resident duties that confer a high degree of service may still provide high educational value, in the form of genuine experience with patient care”. In essence they argue that seeing any/all patients is a learning opportunity! We will often joke about this on a shift when there’s a patient that likely won’t be a valuable learning experience for the trainee. I would agree that learning probably can gained from most patient interactions however, the quality and the yield may very often be low. Plus rather than subscribe to these authors’ belief  any patient presents learning opportunities and service should be viewed as learning, we should recognize that different learners have different needs. I would argue that in the emergency department, a surgery intern may gain very little from seeing a patient with chronic back pain that is seeking opiates and has considerable behavior issues. Patients like this can be challenging and often provide little learning especially when there are other patients to see. For instance, it’s very possible there’s a patient that needs to be seen that will better fulfill the pre-defined objectives of the surgery intern. However, this patient may be useful for the senior emergency medicine resident to manage as such patients will be their responsibility once they’re staff.

The authors then provide several examples of “service” which I found quite interesting.  One which particularly caught my attention…”A family practice resident misses a teaching conference in order to see her last clinic patient, who arrives late because of transportation problems“. They argue that a “didactic” teaching session is not nearly as valuable as seeing that final patient in clinic! I think this sets a dangerous precedent. Residents/trainees should not be made to miss preestablished learning opportunities for service. Whatever this “teaching session” is, it’s been integrated into the curriculum such that the resident can work towards achieving competence in their field. There may be exceptions but as a rule I would advocate against this mindset.

We have begun to move towards a competency-based approach to medical education with a set of competencies laid out for residents to achieve by the end of their training. As they work towards these competencies, there’s no doubt that they’ll be doing “service” and “less valuable” tasks but to think that simply seeing patients and doing scut work is valuable because you never know when that little piece of learning may occur is wrong.

The final words of the authors addressed the aspect of competency-based education head on: “many medical educators have worked to optimize the educational value of residency and protect trainees from engaging in menial activities from which they do not learn. As such reform continues, however, it risks going too far and sacrificing certain essential educational experiences that can emerge from service activities, as well as the opportunity to teach trainees about service’s importance to the profession”

Overall  the author’s argument came across as annoyed staff physicians who were having to do their own work and no longer being able to pawn it off on their residents.

In general, I strongly disagreed with the authors’ argument. In an era in medical education when time has become a commodity and duty hour restrictions have become reality, we must continue on the path towards ensuring trainees are competent based on pre-defined learning objectives. We should seek efficient and high yield methods for trainees to learn. To continue forcing a resident to do dictations for the same thing over and over simply because they need to learn the value of service seems to go against this approach. It will not help trainees become better doctors and as a result our patients will suffer. And as most of us agree, we became physicians to become experts in patient care and help those who can’t help themselves.

A very interesting study about how our focus can affect our ability to identify seemingly obvious elements

Auckland HEMS

A recent study (not sure if it’s been published yet but will be soon) studied the ability of radiologists to accurately identify abnormalities on a CT scan. We’re talking board-certified, full fledged radiologists! I can’t take credit for coming across this paper – check out @TechnicalSkillz, ED physician in Toronto who tweeted the link. He has a real interest in cognitive biases and medical decision making. Anyways…I digress.

gorilla CT scan

This image was presented to radiologists after they were told to look for abnormalities including lung nodules. Do you see the abnormality? Don’t worry…you don’t need to be an expert at reading CTs…it should be obvious!

24 radiologists examined this image and 20 were not able to identify the gorilla in the upper right corner! 20/24 didn’t see it! that’s unbelievable. They’re so focused on looking for other things that they glazed right over it. Using eye tracking technology, the reserachers…

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