After my discourses on under- and over-triage in the last week, I received an interesting question from a reader: although undertriage seems bad from a theoretical standpoint, are there any objective negative consequences?
As you might imagine, there is little literature on this topic. The incidence is low, so it’s tough to design a study with enough power to come to any solid conclusions. There are two studies that I can cite that shed as much light on the subject as possible.
The first looks at system undertriage at the EMS level. A Canadian study looked at patients with severe injuries (identified by ISS>15 after admission) who were taken to trauma centers (correct triage) vs non-trauma centers (undertriage). After solid statistical analysis of over 11,000 patients, they found that mortality in the undertriage group was 24% higher than the correctly triaged patients.
A second study looked at undertriage in one trauma center (1,424 patients) using their standard triage criteria, not ISS. The undertriage group had a significantly lower ISS (17 vs 25). The correctly triaged patients were more frequently intubated in the ED, more likely to be admitted to the ICU, and had longer ICU and hospital stays. Mortality was not significantly different. The problem with this study is that most of the undertriage group probably did not need a trauma activation, based on their lower ISS. The higher ISS patients (who met triage criteria) needed an airway earlier and required critical care more often. These data show that the institution probably needs to adjust its triage criteria!
Bottom line: The Canadian study shows the danger of undertriage prior to reaching definitive care. There is no good literature that illustrates its danger once the patient is at a trauma center. But there is support for the converse idea that appropriately triaged patients get definitive management sooner (airway, critical care). Any takers for designing the study to answer this question?
- Survival of the fittest: the hidden cost of undertriage of major trauma. J Amer Col Surgeons, 211:804-811, Dec 2010.
- Outcome assessment of blunt trauma patients who are undertriaged. Surgery 148(2): 239-245, Aug 2010.