Category Archives: Trauma Center

Best of AAST #1: The Price of Being a Trauma Center

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma (AAST) begins in two weeks. Today, I will kick off a series of commentaries on many of the abstracts being presented at the meeting. All readers should be aware that I have only the abstracts to work with. As I always caution, final judgement cannot be passed until the full paper has been reviewed. And many of these will not make the jump to light speed and ever get published. So take them with a grain of salt. They may point to some promising developments, but then, maybe not.

First up is a nice analysis on the price of being a trauma center. One of my mentors, Bill Schwab, always used to say that trauma centers are always in a state of “high-tech waiting.” It costs money to keep surgeons in house, other medical and surgical specialists at the ready, and an array of services and equipment available at all hours. Any hospital administrator can tell you that trauma is expensive. But how expensive, exactly?

The trauma group at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon did a detailed analysis of the cost of readiness for trauma centers in the year 2016. The Georgia State Trauma Commission, trauma medical directors, trauma program managers, and financial officers from the Level I and II centers in Georgia determined the various categories and reported their actual costs for each. An independent auditor reviewed the data to ensure reporting consistency. Significant variances were analyzed to ensure accurate information.

Here are the factoids:

  • Costs were lumped into four major categories:  administrative, clinical medical staff, in-house OR, and education/outreach
  • Clinical medical staff was the most expensive component, representing 55% of costs at Level I centers and 65% at Level II
  • Only about $110,000 was spent annually on outreach and education at both Level I and II centers, representing a relative lack of resources for this component.
  • Total cost of being a Level I center is about $10 million per year, and $5 million per year for Level II

Here is a copy of the table with the detailed breakdown of each component:

Bottom line: Yes, it’s expensive to be a trauma center. It’s a good idea for any trauma center wannabe to perform a detailed  analysis to make sure that it makes sense financially. This is most important in areas where there are plenty of trauma centers already.  Tools have been developed to determine how many trauma centers will fit within a given geographic area (see below). Unfortunately, very few if any states use this tool to determine how many centers are reasonable. In come cities, it’s almost like the wild west, with centers popping up at random all over the place. This abstract suggests that an additional analysis is mandatory before taking the plunge into this expensive business.

Related post:

Reference: How much green does it take to be orange? Determining cost associated with trauma center readiness. Podium abstract #18, session VIII, AAST 2018.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Secondary Overtriage: What Is It, And Why Is It Bad?

Simply put, secondary overtriage (SO) is the unnecessary transfer of a patient to another hospital. How can you, as the referring trauma professional, know that it is unnecessary? Almost by definition, you can’t, unless you have some kind of precognition. If you knew it wasn’t necessary, you wouldn’t do it in the first place, right?

But using the retrospectoscope, it’s much easier. The classic definition describes a patient who is discharged from the hospital shortly after arrival there. What is “shortly?” Typically, it occurs within 48 hours in a patient with low injury severity (ISS < 16) and without operative intervention. Definitions may vary slightly.

And why is it bad?

Several states with rural trauma systems have scrutinized this issue. The first study is from West Virginia, where six years of state registry data were analyzed. Over 19,000 adults were discharged home from a non-Level I center within 48 hours after an injury. Of those, about 1,900 (10%) had been transferred to a “higher level of care” and discharged from that center (secondary overtriage, could be any higher-level trauma center).

The factoids:

  • Patients with ISS > 15 and requiring blood transfusion were more likely to be SO. (I would argue that this is appropriate triage in most cases!)
  • Neurosurgical, spine and facial injuries were also associated with SO. (This one is a little more interesting, see below).
  • SO was more likely for transfers during the night shift, when resources are often more scarce

The problem is that this study is descriptive only. It doesn’t really help us figure out which patients could/should be kept based on any of the variables they collected.

The next study is from Dartmouth in New Hampshire and examines transfers into that single Level I center from 72 other hospitals. Registry data were examined over 5 years, identifying transfer patients with ISS < 15 who were discharged within 48 hours without an operation.

Yet more factoids:

  • 62% of the nearly 8,000 patients received by this center were transfers
  • Overall SO rate was 26%
  • A quarter of adult patients and one half of pediatric patients were considered SO, and about 15% of them were actually discharged from the ED (!)
  • Head and neck, and soft tissue injuries were most common among SO patients

The real bottom line: Here are my thoughts on what you can do to try to decrease the number of your patients with SO and optimize the transfer process:

  • Work with your upstream trauma center to determine how much imaging you really need to perform
  • Develop a reliable method of getting those images to them
  • Ask them to help you develop practice guidelines and educate your hospital/ED staff to help manage common diagnoses that often result in SO from your center
  • If you are located in a rural area, inquire about RTTD courses you might attend

References:

  • Secondary overtriage in a statewide rural trauma system. J Surg Research 198:462-467, 2015.
  • Secondary overtriage: the burden of unnecessary interfacility transfers in a rural trauma system. JAMA Surg 48(8):763-768, 2013.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Radiographic Image Sharing Systems

There are generally three ways to share radiographic images with your upstream trauma center:

  • Hard copy. These days, that usually means a CD. Nearly all PACS systems (picture archiving and communications systems) can write CDs that can accompany your patient. Advantage: super cheap. Possible downsides: the CD may be corrupted and not openable, the software on the disk cannot be installed or will not run at the receiving hospital, and finally it can just be forgotten in the rush to get the patient out of the ED.
  • PACS system connections. These are software links that enable one hospital’s PACS software to communicate with another’s. They must be established in advance, and generally require some expertise from the hospitals’ IT departments. Images can be pushed from one system to another. Advantages: once set up, it is very inexpensive to maintain, and images can be viewed prior to patient arrival at the receiving hospital. Possible downside: Al-though the interchange format is standardized, every once in a while the systems just can’t communicate.
  • Web-based image sharing system. This consists of a web server-based software application available via the internet that allows subscribing hospitals to sign on and share images. Referring hospitals can upload images from their PACS systems for free, and the receiving hospital can view the images and/or download into their own system. Advantage: these products are simple to set up, and easy to use after just a little training. Compatibility is very high, and the services are continually working to ensure it. Downside: expensive. Depending on specifics, the annual subscription may be up to $100K per year, and is generally footed by the receiving trauma center.

Is a web-based solution worth it? MetroHealth in Cleveland looked at this over five years ago, and published their results in 2015. They looked at their experience pre- and post-implementation and found the following:

  • Three years of transfer data prior to the web system implementation was compared to one year of experience after
  • CT imaging decreased at both referring and receiving hospitals across the study period
  • Repeat scan rate decreased from 38% to 28%. Repeat head scans were the major driver at 21%.
  • Cost of reimaging dropped from about $1000 per patient to $600

Bottom line: As a referring hospital, it is your responsibility to ensure that the (hopefully) few images you obtain make it to the upstream trauma center. Although hard copy (CD) is the cheapest, it is also the least reliable. Work with your radiology and IT departments to determine which electronic solution is best for you. Some states and regional trauma systems help subsidize or provide a web-based solution for their member hospitals.

Reference: Implementation of an image sharing system significantly reduced repeat computed tomographic imaging in a regional trauma system. J Trauma 80(1):51-56, 2016.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Impact Of Patient Imaging Prior To Transfer Out

The reality is that 90% of injuries are minor and can be treated at any hospital. A minority of patients actually have issues that require transfer to a higher-level trauma center. Physical examination can certainly help determine who some of those patients are. Think obvious open fracture or severe brain injury at a hospital without key specialists to care for them.

But not all injuries are that obvious. Imaging techniques are the next step to identifying injuries that would require transfer. The question is, how much imaging is appropriate?

A few hospitals are selective about it. But many proceed with a comprehensive battery of scans and x-rays. Some believe that their receiving trauma center expects it. And a few may be doing it for the money, unfortunately. So who is right?

There are three issues at play: time, accuracy, and radiation exposure. Let’s pick them apart.

Time. It takes time to get radiographic studies. Depending on the number obtained, it can take up to 90 minutes. A study looking at transfers from rural hospitals to a regional trauma center in Wisconsin found that the median time to transfer significantly in-creased from 67 to 140 minutes with the addition of even a single CT scan.

This issue appears to be even more of a problem in children. A group at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital studied the characteristics of children who experienced prolonged transfer times to a Level I pediatric trauma center. They reviewed 5 years of registry data, looking at time of injury to time of arrival at their center. The State of Ohio has a goal of a maximum 2-hour transfer time.

And here are the factoids:

  • 748 patients were included in the study, and the demographics were predictable (65%male, 97% blunt)
  • 25% were more severely injured (ISS > 15)
  • The majority of the patients (82%) arrived well after the 2-hour goal (7 hrs!!)
  • 79% of patients with high ISS and 47% of those with severe TBI arrived late (!!)
  • Transfer tardiness did not correlate with distance, and was only slightly improved when a helicopter was used
  • Significantly more CT scans were obtained in the late transfer group (49% vs 23%), and appeared to have no correlation with GCS or vital signs. There was, however, a significant correlation with private insurance.
  • Half of the children with scans arrived without results or had suboptimal imaging, resulting in repeat scans in about one third.

Accuracy and radiation exposure. These two factors are inextricably linked because inaccuracy begets additional imaging. As noted in the previous study, radiology results are frequently lacking, or the studies are not done well, as determined by the receiving center. This means that inaccurate results, or no results at all, are available after transfer. How much of a problem is this?

The Level I center at UC Davis looked at all incoming trauma transfers that had any CT imaging done prior. Of 370 patients, one quarter needed repeat scans. Most common were head scans (47%) and cervical spine (20%). The most common reasons for repetition were referring hospital scan not available (42%) (not sent, couldn’t open) and insufficient quality (20%). This resulted in significant additional radiation exposure, with 4% of patients receiving more than 10mSv!

Bottom line: Imaging prior to transfer definitely increases time to transfer and frequently results in repeat imaging and more radiation exposure. So why does it happen? Sometimes, it’s the mistaken belief that it will save time after transfer. Not the case. Or there is time left before the transport ambulance or helicopter arrives, so why not use it? Not a good reason, and it may delay the transfer team if they arrive early. Or the receiving trauma center “expects it.” Not if they’ve looked at any of these papers!

The best approach is to order only images that will guide your therapy. A chest x-ray on arrival or after intubation. A pelvic x-ray to determine if a binder should be applied. A CT of the abdomen to see if there are any injuries that can’t be taken care of at your hospital. As a general rule, once you have found an injury your hospital can’t treat, or have made the decision to transfer for any other reason, no additional imaging is indicated! 

References:

  • Consequences of increased use of computed tomography imaging for trauma patients in rural referring hospitals prior to transfer to a regional trauma centre. Injury 45:835-839, 2014.
  • Unnecessary imaging, not hospital distance, or transportation mode impacts delays in the transfer of injured children. Pediatric Emerg Care 26(7):481-486, 2010.
  • Rate and Reasons for Repeat CT Scanning in Transferred Trauma Patients. Am Surg 83(5):465-569, 2017.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Electronic Trauma Flow Sheet – Final Answer

After more than 10 years of experience, moving to an electronic trauma flow sheet is still not ready for prime time. I’ve seen many, many hospitals struggling to make it work. And all but a very few have failed.

There are two major problems. First, existing computer input technology is underdeveloped. Trying to rapidly put information into small windows on a computer, and having to switch between mouse and keyboard and back is just too slow. And second, output reports are terrible. Humans cannot scan 26 pages of chronological data and reconstruct a trauma activation in their head. There is so much extra data in the typical computer-generated reports, the signal (potential PI issues) gets lost in the noise.

The technology exists to remedy both of the problems. However, the EHR vendors keep tight control over data exchange in and out of their products. Sure, there is CareAnywhere and it’s ilk, but the user is still forced to use the vendor’s flawed input and output systems.

Bottom line: You can’t make a complex system (trauma care) easier or safer by adding complexity (the EHR). Yet.

The electronic trauma flow sheet will never work as well as it could until all the vendors settle on a strong data interchange standard to put data into and get reports out of the EHR. Once that happens, scores of startup companies will start to design easy input systems and report outputs or displays that are actually meaningful. There’s not enough interest in this niche market to make it worthwhile for a company the size of Epic or McKesson, but there is definitely enough for a lot of young companies just chomping at the bit in Silicon Valley.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email