EMS in the field and physicians in the ED are faced with rapidly assigning some degree of stability to the patients they treat. What exactly are the shades of stability, and what considerations are there for each degree?
In my mind, there are three levels of “stability”:
Unstable – this one is easy to figure out. The patient has obvious physiologic compromise, which may be objective (low blood pressure, low GCS or poor neuro exam, etc) or subjective (just plain looks bad). EMS: These patients need transport to an appropriate level trauma center (I or II) immediately. If they need airway control or IV access that can’t be obtained in the field, stop at the nearest Level III or IV for assist, then continue on your way FAST. ED: These patient must be a trauma activation. If not activated as your top-tier trauma, activate or upgrade now! These patients must be seen by a trauma surgeon immediately, and can only go to the OR. No diagnostics outside the resuscitation room are allowed unless they can be converted into one of the two stability levels below.
Stable – this one is usually easy to figure out, too. These patients look good, have good vitals, and a low to moderate energy mechanism for their trauma. Look out for those few patients that may be hiding something like moderate bleeding into some body cavity. EMS: Follow your usual transport protocols to select the closest, appropriate hospital. ED: Follow your standard protocols for trauma activation if needed. Transport for standard imaging is fine.
Metastable – this is a term I invented. It describes patients who have evidence of ongoing volume loss that can be controlled with infusion of crystalloid and/or blood products. It is possible to maintain a certainly level of stability using higher than normal volume infusions. This allows physicians to consider diagnostics or interventions outside of an OR. EMS: Ensure adequate IV access and give fluids and/or blood per your local protocols. Transport to a Level I or II trauma center as quickly as possible. ED: Activate or upgrade to your highest level of trauma activation. The trauma surgeon needs to be present to help direct diagnostics or interventions. These patients may go to CT, IR or other appropriate areas with nurse and physician accompaniment to diagnose and possibly treat bleeding. If the patient changes to unstable at any point, they must immediately be taken to the OR.
Helicopter EMS (HEMS) transport of trauma patients is used primarily to decrease the amount of time between injury and arrival at the trauma center. Unfortunately, efficacy studies have provided conflicting answers as to whether this is actually true. Last year, the CDC completed a large sample study of this issue using the National Trauma Data Bank (NTDB) in an attempt to determine if HEMS flights are effective.
Using almost 150,000 entries in the NTDB for 2007, they were able to isolate over 56,000 adult records with complete data points. They looked for mortality patterns based on age, injury severity, and revised trauma score, comparing patients who were transported by air vs ground.
They found the following:
Odds of dying in-hospital were 39% lower overall when transported by helicopter
This survival advantaged disappeared for patients age 55 and older, possibly because of decreased reserve, comorbidities, more complications, or medications that interfere with successful resuscitation
Regardless of type of transport, males always fared worse than females
Bottom line: This is a large and intriguing study. About 85% of the US population has access to a Level I or II trauma center within an hour. However, a third of those can only get there in that period of time if transported by air. This mode of transport has a significantly lower mortality rate. However, there are cost and safety considerations as well. The key now is to figure out which patients will have the best outcomes after air transport. This will require more work, looking at more than just mortality (e.g. disability, complications). And what’s the deal with men having poorer outcomes???
Reference: Reduced mortality in injured adults transported by helicopter emergency medical services. Prehospital Emerg Care 15(3):295-302, 2011.
When I was at Penn 25 years ago, I was fascinated to see that police officers were allowed to transport penetrating trauma patients to the hospital. They had no medical training and no specific equipment. They basically tossed the patient into the back seat, drove as fast as possible to a trauma center, and dropped them off. Then they (hopefully) hosed down the inside of the squad car.
Granted, it was fast. But did it benefit the patient? The group now at Penn decided to look at this to see if there was some benefit (survival) to this practice. They retrospectively looked at 5 years of data in the mid-2000’s, thus comparing the results of police transport with reasonably state of the art EMS transport.
They found over 2100 penetrating injury transports during this time frame (!), and roughly a quarter of those (27%) were transported by police. About 71% were gunshots vs 29% stabs. They found the following interesting information:
The police transported more badly injured patients (ISS=14) than EMS (ISS=10)
About 21% of police transports died, compared to 15% for EMS
But when mortality was corrected for the higher ISS transported by police, it was equivalent for the two modes of transport
Although they did not show a survival benefit to this practice, there was certainly no harm done. And in busy urban environments, such a policy could offload some of the workload from busy EMS services.
Bottom line: Certainly this is not a perfect paper. But it does add more fuel to the “stay and play” vs “scoop and run” debate. It seems to lend credence to the concept that, in the field, less is better in penetrating trauma. What really saves these patients is definitive control of bleeding, which neither police nor paramedics can provide. Therefore, whoever gets the patient to the trauma center in the least time wins. And so does the patient.
Wartime experience has shown that rapid transport from the battlefield scene of injury to definitive care dramatically improves survival. This has been translated into civilian trauma care by making helicopter transport to a trauma center more widely available. But this resource is still somewhat limited, and very expensive compared to ground EMS transport. Is this expense warranted, or in other words, does it improve survival?
Many have tried to answer this question. Several of these studies did show improved survival with air transport, but most had significant flaws that made their conclusions hard to interpret. The current issue of JAMA has published an article from MIEMSS and Johns Hopkins that tries to do it right.
The authors used the National Trauma Data Bank (1.8M records) and whittled it down to 223K by using pertinent exclusion criteria. About 25% were transported by air and 72% were taken to Level I centers (vs Level II). A sophisticated regression model was used to adjust for missing data and clustering by trauma centers.
They found that there is roughly a 1.5% survival advantage in taking patients to trauma centers by air. About 65 patients need to be transported to a Level I center, or 69 patients to a Level II center, to save a life. There are some issues with the statistics, primarily due to the nature of the NTDB data, but overall the paper is nicely done.
Bottom line: It looks like helicopter transport of seriously injured trauma patients conveys a very small survival advantage. However, this does not mean that everybody now needs to be flown in. This is not an ideal world, and not everybody is in an area that can provide such transport. Furthermore, in many areas ground EMS is still faster than air. And finally, air transport is much more expensive than the incremental survival increase may be worth. We will have to come to grips as a society to figure out what we can really afford.
Reference: Association between helicopter vs ground emergency medical services and survival for adults with major trauma. JAMA 307(15):1602-1610, April 18, 2012.
I’ve written about handoffs between EMS and the trauma team over the past two days. It’s a problem at many hospitals. So what to do?
Let’s learn from our experience in the OR. Best practice in the operating room mandates a specific time out process that involves everyone in the OR. Each participant in the operation has to stop, identify the patient, state what the proposed procedure and location is, verify that the site is marked properly, and that they have carried out their own specific responsibilities (e.g. infused the antibiotic).
Some trauma centers have initiated a similar process for their trauma team as well. Here’s how it works:
The patient is rolled into the resuscitation room by EMS personnel, but remains on the stretcher.
Any urgent cares continue, such as ventilation.
The trauma team leader is identified and the EMS lead gives a brief report while everyone in the room listens. The report consists of only mechanism, all identified injuries, vital signs (including pupils and GCS), any treatments provided. This should take no more than 30 seconds.
An opportunity for questions to be asked and answered is presented
The patient is moved onto the hospital bed and evaluation and treatment proceed as usual.
EMS personnel provide any additional information to the scribe, and may be available to answer any additional questions for a brief period of time.
Bottom line: This is an excellent way to improve the relationship between prehospital and trauma team while improving patient care. It should help increase the amount of clinically relevant information exchanged between care providers. Obviously, there will be certain cases where such a clean process is not possible (e.g. CPR in progress). I recommend that all trauma programs consider implementing this “Trauma Activation Time Out For EMS” concept.