Without evidence of benefit, an intervention should not be presumed to be beneficial or safe.

- Rogue Medic

Overdose Treatment – One Perspective

Also posted over at Paramedicine 101. Go check out the rest of what is there.

Wandering a bit from the recent All Cardiac – All of the Time drift of Paramedicine 101, but not entirely, I must point out an excellent post on Heroin Overdoses by a blogger, who really is much more imaginative than that post title suggests – Too Old To Work, Too Young to Retire. He is just as direct as the title suggests.

Here is an example of education on junkie slang. It is both translated to everyday English and comes with an explanation of the most effective and most appropriate treatment.

commonly known as “nodding off” or being “on the nod”. The person is usually easily woken up by either a shake on their shoulder or speaking to them loudly. Despite what some in EMS think, this is NOT an overdose. Because it is the desired effect, I refer to this as “a dose”.

He describes the protocol that is in place where he works. His protocol uses respiratory depression as the criterion for treatment with naloxone (Narcan). Some of us have protocols that require treatment with naloxone for Altered Mental Status. I am not in favor of treating opioid overdoses under Altered Mental Status protocols, because this discourages the medic from delivering appropriate care. In stead, the medic ends up delivering vending machine care.

Enter minimal diagnostic criteria _____, remember to use only approved EMS terminology (the protocol vending machine does not recognize unapproved terminology), press Enter, and out pops a treatment. Eureka! No Fuss, No Muss, No Thought, No Possibility For Error. At least, this is the way that many seem to design protocols. Of course, the word diagnostic would not be in the list of approved terminology.

If we are designing a protocol with Foolproof in mind, aren’t we designing protocols to encourage the hiring of fools? How can we deny that we expect fools to use the protocols, if we are designing the protocols with fools in mind? We are designing protocols to prevent fools from doing too much damage, while using those protocols. Wouldn’t it be better to just keep the fools from being authorized to poison patients?

There is a great article by Dr. Bledsoe on the error of using a set treatment for every unconscious patient.[1]

TOTWTYTR points out the use of other diagnostic information in coming to the conclusion of heroin overdose. In addition to the respiratory depression, needle marks, pinpoint pupils, being in a shooting gallery, the presence of injection supplies, . . . are just some of the information that would lead a competent medic to use naloxone in treating this patient. Pennsylvania has a pretty good example of this in their protocols.[2]

With such a patient, my goal is not awake and alert, but breathing adequately. True, they will not have a GCS[3] of 15, but that is where the word competent becomes important. Were we called to the scene because a heroin user was sleeping (not awake), or because a heroin user could not go out and steal something to pay for more drugs (not alert enough to act as a lookout), or because a heroin user was not breathing adequately?

How awake do we want the patient to be?

How alert do we want the patient to be?

How much do we want to endanger EMS crews, just to have the vital signs part of the paperwork look pretty?

Is it possible that an HOD (Heroin OverDose) has a stroke at the same time? Gosh, injecting various impure and not exactly FDA approved solutions into the veins could result in something that should not be in the brain, ending up in the brain. And I am not referring to the heroin, but particles that do not become fully dissolved in the solution that is injected, or particles that precipitate out of solution at some point. These would not be described as good in the brain. What is baseline function of the addicted brain? Is it always GCS = 15? Can we identify signs of a stroke, even if the patient’s GCS 15? Yes. Why do we think we could not?

Reading TOTWTYTR’s blog is a good way to avoid the dumbing down of EMS. He does not only mention the shortcomings of EMS in this post, but points out the abuse of pulse oximetry in the hands of a nurse. Is he just looking for an opportunity to criticize nurses? No. He is pointing out that this is somebody who should not be a nurse – perhaps a Faux Nurse. No more representative of competent nurses than a Faux Paramedic (Medic X) would be representative of competent medics.

Anyway. Go read the whole thing. It is longer than his usual post (bad kettle), but it is very informative and entertaining.


[1] No more coma cocktails. Using science to dispel myths & improve patient care.
Bledsoe BE.
JEMS. 2002 Nov;27(11):54-60.
PMID: 12483195 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]
The Pubmed link is to the abstract. For the full article as a pdf, click below.
Free PDF

[2] Altered Level of Consciousness
Pennsylvania Adult Statewide ALS Protocol Nov. 2008
Note # 6
Pages 78/121 and 79/121 enter 78 in the page count window.
Page with link to the full text PDF of the protocols.

[3] Glasgow Coma Scale/Score


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