The patient assessment is probably the most important skill every EMS person should master in order to be a truly exceptional EMT. No matter the call, no matter the patient, the EMS provider needs to be able to rapidly zero in on a complaint, make a working diagnosis, and provide adequate treatment for the patient’s condition. This skill is more important than any other simply because if you don’t know what is going on with the patient, you can’t know how to treat them.
Patient assessment has been taught many ways over the years by different versions of the EMT curriculum. I was taught that each patient gets three different types of assessment during the course of an encounter with EMS. These are: The Primary Assessment, the Secondary Assessment, and the Ongoing Assessment. Each of these three types of assessments is valuable to the EMT or Paramedic in determining what is really wrong with the patient. They’re designed to function in concert, each giving more information to the EMS provider that they can use in formulating an effective treatment plan. The more detailed they are, the better treatment decisions they allow and the better the patient’s overall progression through the healthcare system will be. Every patient should get all three of these assessments. EVERY PATIENT, EVERY CALL, EVERY TIME. Whether the call is a 911 emergency fall off of a cliff or a simple discharge back to a nursing home, every patient you come into contact with in your entire career should get your best assessment. It’s something you just can’t skip.
Take a look at the three general types of assessments:
- The PRIMARY ASSESSMENT: The quickest assessment in the EMS toolkit, it is the first impression you make of your patient. It is intended to rapidly identify life-threatening conditions and facilitate immediate stabilizing treatment. In this assessment you should check for Airway Patency (openness), Breathing (Rate, quality, presence), and Circulation (Pulse, blood pressure, and Skin perfusion – Color, temperature, and moisture). You should also check for gross deformity, major trauma and/or blood loss, or anything else that may cause the patient to crash. If found, you should act immediately to provide stabilizing treatment. This is also where you should determine the chief complaint, the need for spinal immobilization, and form your general impression of the overall patient condition.
- The SECONDARY ASSESSMENT: Also known as the “Head to Toe Assessment”, this is a detailed physical examination of the patient, literally from head to toe. A secondary assessment should check a minimum of the following: Skin perfusion (again), Pupil and eye condition (using the acronym PERRL “Pupils Equal, Round, and Reactive to Light), Jugular Venous Distention (JVD), condition of the Trachea/neck (is it Midline? Is it mobile? Tugging to one side? Trauma?), Chest Rise and Fall/condition (Equal bilaterally? Normal?) Lung sounds? Abdomen (Pain? Tenderness? Soft, Firm, or Rigid? What quadrant? Any Pulsatile Mass? Any Rebound Tenderness?) Extremities (distal pulse/perfusion, deformity, Motor/Sensory/neurological function? Pitting Edema?). You should also look the patient over from head to toe to check for any hidden injuries and for anything that doesn’t appear normal. During the secondary assessment, you should remember the acronym “DCAP-BLS-TIC” (pronounced “Dee CAP-B-L-S Tick”) that reminds you to check for the following: “Deformity, Contusions, Abrasions, Penetrations, Burns, Lacerations, Swelling, Tenderness, Inflammation, Crepitus” (The links are to the Wikipedia definition of the words, also TheEMTspot.com has a great post on this topic)
- The Ongoing Assessment: The previous two assessments are useful in determining your patient’s baseline presentation and making your working field diagnosis. However, your assessment doesn’t stop there. The Ongoing Assessment is used to monitor changes in the patient’s condition and to get a trend of their progression, good or bad. You can measure the effectiveness of your treatments and see how their condition is progressing. This could be as simple as asking a patient “Do you feel any better or worse?” and rechecking their vital signs, or as in-depth as redoing your entire secondary assessment. Monitor every patient closely for changes. Recheck vitals every 5-10 minutes for compromised patients, and every 10-15 for stable ones.
Here are some tricks you can use to nail your assessment:
- Just Do It! – Remember, you can’t over-assess your patient. The more information you get the better. Every patient gets a full assessment, every time. Even if you can’t act on the information you gather, the information could prove invaluable to healthcare providers further down the road. They need good information on the acute phase of the patient’s illness. Remember, the EMT is “the eyes and ears of the physician in the field.” You’d never see a physician diagnose a patient without a thorough exam, don’t skip it either.
- Standardize! – Develop a standard assessment that covers at least all of the stuff I talked about above, and do it every time. Start at the head and work your way down. Think up a set of questions you want to know the answers to about your patient, and answer them every time. Not only will practicing the assessment get it down to a science, you’ll also get very quick at it. This also can help you with your narrative report writing. You can put the answers to all of your questions in your patient care report, and that’s a great way to write a narrative.
- Start your assessment the second you arrive on scene – Start gathering information about the patient immediately. Note the ambient temperature. Note the condition of the patient’s living space and where you found them. If the patient is at home, look for adequate food and water. Check for disease vectors such as filth. You may want to ask the patient about their living conditions later, such as asking them if they’ve been sleeping upright in a chair when checking for CHF. Any information you gather is useful.
- Check THESE THREE THINGS when you first encounter the patient – Always introduce yourself to the patient using your name and while you’re doing this, feel their radial pulse with your fingers. This tells you three immediately important things that will drive the rest of your care: The status of their Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. You’ll feel the rate and quality of their pulse; feel their skin temperature, moisture, and condition; and be able to assess their work of breathing when they answer you back from your introduction. If any of these things are compromised… the patient is probably sick and in need of intervention.
- Try to determine the patient’s ultimate diagnosis – What, you’re scared of making a diagnosis because you’ve heard that medics don’t diagnose? That’s BS. We diagnose all the time, we just don’t make the final diagnosis. Call it a “Field Diagnosis” if you want, but I say you should try to piece together the symptoms your patient is having and try to diagnose the cause. If you don’t know the answer, fire up the Google and do some research. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn that way. Also, talk to the receiving physicians and nurses at the ER. You’ll learn a vast amount of information that will make you a better provider overall.
- Be as thorough as time will allow – Certainly, there are times where an EMT will be focused on immediately stabilizing treatment, such as airway management or hemorrhage control and won’t be able to hit all of the possible nooks and crannies of a patient assessment. However, most patients aren’t that severe and you’ll have time to gather all of the information you can. The more you assess the better information you can collect and pass on. Check for such things as: Pulsus paradoxus; a difference in blood pressure between the arms; the Babinski Sign; hidden trauma; Cushing’s Triad; and many other interesting things. You’ll learn a lot, and might just catch a few zebras.
- Don’t afraid to touch the patient – You’re a medical person. Medical people touch other people. Sometimes they see them naked. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and sometimes you have to touch them in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be socially acceptable. Of course, don’t do anything wrong, illegal, or immoral… but when you’re checking for a broken leg you have to touch the leg. Actually Look at, Listen to, and Feel your patients. Be a professional.
- Know what “normal” is, and look for things that aren’t – Eventually, once you master the art of determining what a normal presentation is, the things that are abnormal will jump out at you. Once you’ve practiced and honed your assessment skills, you’ll be able to see any abnormalities with relative ease. It takes practice, but developing the skill is well worth the effort.
Employ these tricks and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of the assessment. Always learn and strive to improve your craft. Keep your eyes open and absorb new information. Pretty soon you’ll be amazing your colleagues with what you know and what you can tell them about your patients.
Want more information on the patient assessment?
Also, Check out TheEMTspot.com’s “Mastering the Head to Toe Assessment”