Tag Archives: Referring hospital

The Referral Hospital Trauma Rule

The majority of trauma patients are seen initially at non-trauma centers. And the majority of those patients can be treated just fine at that local hospital. However, a few (some say about 15%) do need to be transferred. The question frequently arises, “what studies do I need to do before transferring?

The danger is that doing things that slow down the transfer can result in bad outcomes. For example, a patient may have a spleen injury that is actively bleeding. Every minute that this patient is not receiving “definitive treatment”, she loses more blood. And every cc of blood lost causes her to inch closer to shock, other complications, or death.

The key is to get people who need a higher level of trauma care on their way to a higher level trauma center as soon as the need is recognized. There is a natural tendency to do diagnostic studies, such as CT scan, in these patients. Sometimes they are needed to actually figure out what is going on. But more often they are obtained to “do a complete workup” or because “the trauma center expects me to.”

Unfortunately, these are incorrect assumptions. The complete workup cannot be used by the referral center if they are shipping the patient, and for a variety of reasons they may not be useful to the trauma center. This is one of the major reasons that referral patients receive extra radiation exposure. About half of the studies performed at the referral hospitals need to be repeated!

The Referral Hospital Trauma Rule: Do any simple study needed to ensure the patient will stay alive until the helicopter/ambulance arrives (typically chest or pelvic xray). If at any point, you see something obviously not treatable at your hospital (i.e. open fracture, GCS 8, partial amputation), DO NO FURTHER STUDIES AND PREPARE TO TRANSFER. If the patient does not have such an obvious problem, do only the tests you need to determine if you can keep the patient. But as soon as you find anything that you cannot treat, stop further studies and prepare to send the patient onward. And don’t forget to send working copies of the few studies that you did get.

What To Do? Small Hospital, Unstable Patient

It’s the situation that physicians in smaller hospitals dread. A major trauma patient gets dropped off at the door. You do your evaluation, quickly determining that they need services that you don’t just have (head injury and positive FAST in the abdomen, let’s say). You call your community EMS service to transport to a Level I trauma center, which is about 30 minutes away by ground. And just as they are rolling out the door to the rig, the blood pressure drops to 60! What to do?!

The ATLS course is very clear, and very correct. Back into the ED for a quick re-evaluation. The most common cause for a significant disturbance in vitals or exam lies within the primary survey. You will almost always find a problem with Airway, Breathing, or Circulation. (A Disability problem can cause a problem on rare occasion (hypotension from impending herniation), but there’s not much that you can do about it, really. Hyperventilate, hyperosmolar therapy, okay but probably a poor outcome for the patient anyway.)

So you didn’t find any airway or breathing issue. But the abdominal stripe(s) you saw on FAST are larger, so it’s circulation. Now what? And does it matter if you have a surgeon available on call? The answer is simpler than you think.

ATLS says that, if you have surgical support available you have to use it in this type of situation. If you don’t have it, package the patient with a lot of blood and plasma and send. If you have a physician or nurse to spare you could consider sending them along to help during transport, but for small community hospitals this is not practical.

But if you do have a surgeon, does it make sense to use them? Not always! You must take into account response times and transport times. Let’s say it’s 2:00 am and you call your surgeon for this hypotensive patient. They may take up to 30 minutes to get in and see the patient. They then agree that the patient needs a laparotomy and she proceeds to call in the OR team. Yet another 30 minutes tick by.  Will the patient still even be alive when they roll into the OR?

Or you could just put the patient back in the ambulance (air preferably, but ground if you have to) and get them to your trauma center quickly. They can then be whisked directly into a waiting OR in less than 30 minutes from your door. This is probably the ideal solution here. Obviously this doesn’t work as well if you are a few hours away from your resource trauma center. 

Bottom line: Deciding what to do with a patient that needs urgent treatment that you can’t immediately deliver is tough! That’s why it’s always a calculus problem when you’re faced with this situation. But take all of the response and transport times into account, and do what’s best for your patient! 

Thanks to EM Res for posing this question!