How Many Trauma Centers Should There Be?

Trauma centers seem to be popping up all over the US. Many metropolitan area have literally scores of centers at various levels. And yet there are swaths across this country where you won’t find a single Level I, and only a few Level IIs. In most states, there is little guidance from the designating authority regarding whether a new trauma center is feasible or even needed. The American College of Surgeons (ACS) has given little guidance over the years, except for a white paper in 2015 that essentially said that it is up to the designating authorities to determine this.

Last August, the ACS organized a consensus conference to try to develop an objective method for figuring out when enough is enough. There was unanimous support for developing a tool that would encourage designation to meet the needs of the trauma patient, not the financial needs of a hospital or hospital system. This Needs-Based Assessment of Trauma Systems (NBATS) tool looks at 6 factors, some of which take a little calculation to complete. A point score is arrived at that predicts the additional number of trauma centers that may be needed. Currently, this tool is in draft form and is in the process of being optimized.

Click here to download the draft document.

So far, this has been a theoretical exercise. But a group at Stanford decided to test the tool on the entire state of California. They used a variety of data sources to compile the needed numbers, and did some complicated spatial analyses of transport times to accurately calculate NBATS scores.

Here are the factoids:

  • 74 trauma centers were identified in the state – 15 Level I, 37 Level II, 14 Level III, and 8 Level IV
  • The state was broken down into 30 Local Emergency Medical Service Agency trauma service regions
  • Only 4 of the 30 regions had scores suggestion that they had enough trauma centers
  • The tool suggested that 9 regions needed 1 more trauma center, 13 would require 2 more, and 4 would require 3 more
  • The model also suggested that 3 regions already had more than needed

Bottom line: There is already literature showing that adding additional (too many?) trauma centers to a region can have a negative impact on patient volumes and resource availability at Level I and II centers. This tool may allow state trauma systems to more objectively determine exactly where more centers are justified, enabling them to rise above the usual political battles (maybe). Unfortunately, the tool does not take available surgical resources in the region (trauma surgeons, neurosurgeons,  orthopedic surgeons) into account, or provide guidance on which levels of new centers should be developed. But it’s a good start to help solve a sticky problem.

Reference: ACS needs based assessment of trauma systems (NBATS) tool: California example. AAST 2016, Paper #24.

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