When I think back to my early days as a medical student, one of the first lessons on the physical exam involves checking central and peripheral perfusion as part of the cardiac exam. In the newborn to assess the hemodynamic status I have often taught that while the blood pressure is a nice number to have it is important to remember that it is a number that is the product of two important factors; resistance and flow. It is possible then that a newborn with a low blood pressure could have good flow but poor vascular tone (warm shock) or poor flow and increased vascular tone (cardiogenic shock or hypovolemia). Similarly, the baby with good perfusion could be in septic shock and be vasodilated with good flow. In other words the use of capillary and blood pressure may not tell you what you really want to know.
Is there a better way?
As I have written about previously, point of care ultrasound is on the rise in Neonatology. As more trainees are being taught the skill and equipment more readily available opportunities abound for testing various hypotheses about the benefit of such technology. In addition to my role as a clinical Neonatologist I am also the Medical Director of the Child Health Transport Team and have pondered about a future where ultrasound is taken on retrievals to enhance patient assessment. I was delighted therefore to see a small but interesting study published on this very topic this past month. Browning Carmo KB and colleagues shared their experience in retrieving 44 infants in their paper Feasibility and utility of portable ultrasound during retrieval of sick preterm infants. The study amounted to a proof of concept and took 7 years to complete in large part due to the rare availability of staff who were trained in ultrasound to retrieve patients. These were mostly small higher risk patients (median birthweight, 1130 g (680–1960 g) and median gestation, 27 weeks (23–30)). Availability of a laptop based ultrasound device made this study possible now that there are nearly palm sized and tablet based ultrasound units this study would be even more feasible now (sometimes they were unable to send a three person team due to weight reasons when factoring in the ultrasound equipment). Without going into great detail the measurements included cardiac (structural and hemodynamic) & head ultrasounds. Bringing things full circle it is the hemodynamic assessment that I found the most interesting.
Can we rely on capillary refill?
From previous work normal values for SVC flow are >50 ml/kg/min and for Right ventricular output > 150 ml/kg/min. These thresholds if not met have been correlated with adverse long term outcomes and in the short term need for inotropic support. In the absence of these ultrasound measurements one would use capillary refill and blood pressure to determine the clinical status but how accurate is it?
First of all out of the 44 patients retrieved, assessment in the field demonstrated 27 (61%) had evidence using these parameters of low systemic blood flow. After admission to the NICU 8 had persistent low systemic blood flow with the patients shown below in the table. The striking finding (at least to me) is that 6 out of 8 had capillary refill times < 2 seconds. With respect to blood pressure 5/8 had mean blood pressures that would be considered normal or even elevated despite clearly compromised systemic blood flow. To answer the question I have posed in this section I think the answer is that capillary refill and I would also add blood pressure are not telling you the whole story. I suspect in these patients the numbers were masking the true status of the patient.
How safe is transport?
One other aspect of the study which I hope would provide some relief to those of us who transport patients long distance is that the head ultrasound findings before and after transport were unchanged. Transport with all of it’s movement to and fro and vibrations would not seem to put babies at risk of intracranial bleeding.
Where do we go from here?
Before we all jump on the bandwagon and spend a great deal of money buying such equipment it needs to be said “larger studies are needed” looking at such things as IVH. Although it is reassuring that patients with IVH did not have extension of such bleeding after transport, it needs to be recognized that with such a small study I am not comfortable saying that the case is closed. What I am concerned about though is the lack of correlation between SVC and RVO measurements and the findings we have used for ages to estimate hemodynamic status in patients.
There will be those who resist such change as it does require effort to acquire a new set of skills. I do see this happening though as we move forward if we want to have the most accurate assessment of clinical status in our patients. As equipment with high resolution becomes increasingly available at lower price points, how long can we afford not to adapt?