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Original Research

The Role of Psychiatry in the Management of Acute Trauma Surgery Patients

John K. Findley, Kathy B. Sanders, and James E. Groves

Published: October 1, 2003

Article Abstract

Background: Trauma is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, with high prevalence and recidivism in individuals with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Half of these disorders go undiagnosed by the trauma team, resulting in adverse public health and economic consequences.

Method: In a 16-week pilot study in the emergency department of an inner-city tertiary care hospital, a psychiatrist was integrated into the trauma surgery team by responding to all traumas and rounding with the staff 1 shift per week (March 1, 2000, through June 31, 2000). During this 16-week period, 375 patients passed through the trauma surgery service. Data on the frequency of psychiatric consultations were compared with those for a retrospectively selected control group consisting of all 360 patients passing through the trauma surgery service during the corresponding 16 weeks of the previous year (March 1, 1999, through June 31, 1999). To determine the prevalence of psychopathology, eligible patients seen during the psychiatrist’s shift (N = 28) were assessed with a semistructured interview, and charts for eligible patients seen in the corresponding shift during the previous year (N = 18) were assessed according to the same criteria. Before the study, a 10-item, self-report questionnaire was completed by 16 (73%) of the 22 emergency medicine physicians who serve as front-line staff members. The survey assessed physicians’ attitudes toward psychiatric consultation for psychopathology and addictions in trauma patients.

Results: Based on DSM-IV screening criteria, the prevalence of preexisting psychopathology was 68% (19/28), but before the psychiatrist’s involvement, only 12% (2/16) of physicians surveyed had considered consulting psychiatry, even for patients with gross psychopathology. Before the psychiatrist’s integration into the 16-week study period, 75% (9/12) of trauma patients were discharged without psychiatric consultation despite the fact that more than half had documented substance abuse. After the psychiatrist joined the team, staff awareness of psychopathology sharpened. The number of patients treated for a psychiatric disorder that was often the proximal cause of the traumatic event nearly doubled, even on shifts not covered in the study.

Conclusions: The ability to identify and treat coexisting psychopathology requires trauma surgeons to routinely incorporate a psychiatrist into their evaluation and treatment algorithm. Such a change in physician awareness and motivation hinges on a psychiatrist’s visible presence (even if brief) and regular, active participation in the emergency department.

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