It is hard to believe but it has been almost 3 years since I wrote a piece entitled A 200 year old invention that remains king of all tech in newborn resuscitation. In the post I shared a recent story of a situation in which the EKG leads told a different story that what our ears and fingers would want us to believe. The concept of the piece was that in the setting of pulseless electrical activity (where there is electrical conductance in the myocardium but lack of contraction leaves no blood flow to the body) one could pick up a signal from the EKG leads when there is in fact no pulse or perfusion to vital organs. This single experience led me to postulate that this situation may be more common than we think and the application of EKG leads routinely could lead to errors in decision making during resuscitation of the newborn. It is easy to see how that could occur when you think about the racing pulses of our own in such situations and once chest compressions start one might watch the monitor and forget when they see a heart rate of 70 BPM to check for a corresponding pulse or listen with the stethoscope. I could see for example someone stopping chest compressions and continuing to provide BVM ventilation despite no palpable pulse when they see the QRS complex clearly on the monitor. I didn’t really have much evidence to support this concern but perhaps there is a little more to present now.
A Crafty Animal Study Provides The Evidence
I haven’t presented many animal studies but this one is fairly simple and serves to illustrate the concern in a research model. For those of you who haven’t done animal research, my apologies in advance as you read what happened to this group of piglets. Although it may sound awful, the study has demonstrated that the concern I and others have has is real.
For this study 54 newborn piglets (equivalent to 36-38 weeks GA in humans) were anesthetized and had a flow sensor surgically placed around the carotid artery. ECG leads were placed as well and then after achieving stabilization, hypoxia was induced with an FiO2 of 0.1 and then asphyxia by disconnecting the ventilator and clamping the ETT. By having a flow probe around the carotid artery the researchers were able to determine the point of no cardiac output and simultaneously monitor for electrical activity via the EKG leads. Auscultation for heart sounds was performed as well.
The results essentially confirm why I have been concerned with an over reliance on EKG leads.
Of the 57 piglets, 14 had asystole and no carotid flow but in 23 there was still a heart rate present on the EKG with no detectable carotid flow. This yields a sensitivity of only 37%. Moreover, the overall accuracy of the ECG was only 56%.
Meanwhile the stethoscope which I have referred to previously as the “king” in these situations had 100% sensitivity so remains deserving of that title.
What do we do with such information?
I think the results give us reason to pause and remember that faster isn’t always better. Previous research has shown that signal acquisition with EKG leads is faster than with oximetry. While a low heart rate detected quickly is helpful to know what the state of the infant is and begin the NRP pathway, we simply can’t rely on the EKG to tell us the whole story. We work in interdisciplinary teams and need to support one another in resuscitations and provide the team with the necessary information to perform well. The next time you are in such a situation remember that the EKG is only one part of the story and that auscultation for heart sounds and palpation of the umbilical cord for pulsation are necessary steps to demonstrate conclusively that you don’t just have a rhythm but a perfusing one.
I would like to thank the Edmonton group for continuing to put out such important work in the field of resuscitation!