Tag Archives: transfer

Do I Have To Call My Trauma Team For Incoming Transfers?

I had a great question sent in by a reader last week:

Some trauma centers receive a number of transfers  from referring hospitals. Much of the time, a portion of the workup has already been done by that hospital. If the patient meets one or more of your trauma activation criteria, do you still need to activate your team when they arrive?

And the answer is: sometimes. But probably not that often.

Think about it. The reason you should be activating your team is that you suspect the patient may have an injury that demands rapid diagnosis and treatment. The purpose of any trauma activation is speed. Rapid evaluation. Fast lab results. Quick access to CT scan or OR. If a significant amount of time has already passed (transported to an outside hospital, worked up for an hour or two, then transported to you), then it is less likely that a trauma activation will benefit the patient.

There are four classes of trauma activation criteria. I’ll touch on each one and the need to activate in a delayed fashion if present, in priority order.

  • Physiologic. If there is a significant disturbance in vital signs while in transit to you (hypotension, tachycardia, respiratory problems, coma), then you must activate. Something else is going on that needs to be corrected as soon as the patient arrives. And remember the two mandatory ACS criteria that fall into this category: respiratory compromise/need for an emergent airway, and patients receiving blood to maintain vital signs. But a patient who needed an airway who is already intubated and no longer compromised does not need to be a trauma activation.
  • Anatomic. Most simple anatomic criteria (e.g. long bone or pelvic fractures) do not need a trauma activation unless the patient is beginning to show signs of physiologic compromise. However, anatomic criteria that require rapid treatment or access to the OR (proximal amputations, mangled or pulseless extremities, spinal cord injury) should be activated.
  • Mechanism. Most of the vague mechanistic criteria (falls, pedestrian struck, vehicle intrusion) do not require trauma activation after transfer to you. But once again, if the mechanism suggests a need for further rapid diagnosis or treatment (penetrating injury to abdomen), then activate.
  • Comorbidities. This includes underlying diseases, extremes of age, and pregnancy. In general, these will not require trauma activation after they arrive.

Bottom line: In many cases, the patient transferred in from another hospital will not need to be a trauma activation, especially if they have been reasonably assessed there. The patient should be rapidly eyeballed by your emergency physicians, and if there is any doubt about their condition, activate then.

However, if little workup was done at the outside hospital (my preference), and the injuries are “fresh” (less than a few hours old), then definitely call your team. 

Best of EAST #4: Futile Trauma Transfers

Level I and II trauma centers are regularly on the receiving end of what may be termed as “futile transfers.” These are patients who have sustained unsalvageable injuries and are initially seen at a lower level center. They are then transferred upstream where they succumb shortly (0-48 hours) after arrival.

As you might imagine, these patients can place a significant burden on resources at the Level I or II center. This is an even more acute situation given the large numbers of COVID patients who also require hospitalization and palliative care services these days.

The group at the University of Kansas sought to put some numbers on this phenomenon. They examined their own experience as one of two Level I trauma centers in the Kansas City metro area. They defined futile care as patients who died or were discharged to hospice care within 48 hours of arrival and who did not undergo operative, endoscopic, or interventional radiology procedures.

Here are the factoids:

  • A total of 1,241 patients were transferred in during the two year study period
  • Of these, 407 had stays of 48 hours or less, and 18 (1.5%) were deemed futile care according to their definition
  • The futile care patients tended to be much older (75 vs 61 years) and were much more severely injured (ISS 21 vs 8)
  • When transport and hospital charges were combined, the average total cost was $56,000
  • Total cost to this hospital was $1.7 million, and this was extrapolated to an annual cost of 27 million for the entire US

The authors concluded that these futile transfers are a small yet costly patient population. They suggested that accurately identifying these patients and providing resources to help referral hospitals figure out how to care for them would be helpful.

My comments: This is a very straightforward descriptive paper that details a problem that every high level trauma center sees on a regular basis. Older patients, typically those with critical head injuries that are beyond treatment, are transferred to the “big house.” The families are frequently told that there are no local resources to provide the care needed, and that the higher level center is their only chance. 

The families then have unrealistic expectations, and are inconvenienced by the travel involved. Wouldn’t it be better to just tell the family that the injury is a really bad one, and provide palliative / hospice care in the local community? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Many small hospitals do not have providers who are well-versed in this type of care. Thus, the suggestion to provide resources (people? training?) is a sound one.

This abstract highlights a problem we all face but seldom publicize. Hopefully this one will get us talking. And acting.

Here are my questions for the authors and presenter:

  1. What kind of resources do you think are needed to allow referral hospitals to care for these patients?
  2. How will these hospitals know when care is futile? Will there be an expectation to work with the receiving center to help determine this?

I enjoyed this paper and can’t wait to hear the details!

Reference: Futile trauma transfers: an infrequent but costly component of regionalized trauma care. EAST 2021, paper 9.

Redefining Mild TBI: Who Needs To Be Transferred?

One of the more common reasons for transfer to a higher level trauma center these days is the “mild or minimal TBI.” Technically, this consists of any patient with a Glasgow Coma Scale score of 14 or 15. A transfer is typically requested for observation or neurosurgical consultation, or because the clinicians at the initial hospital are not comfortable looking after the patient.

Is this really necessary? With the number of ground level falls approaching epidemic proportions, transferring all these patients could begin to overwhelm the resources of high level trauma centers. The surgical group at Carolinas Medical Center examined their experience with a simple scoring system they designed to predict high risk minor TBI patients, and thus suitability for transfer. Here is their checklist:

Category A
  • Traumatic SAH
  • Tentorial or falcine SDH < 4mm thickn
  • Convexity SDH < 4mm thick
  • Solitary IPH < 1cm
  • Isolated intraventricular hemorrhage < 4mm
Category B
  • Any Category A lesion greater than the allowed size
  • Midline shift
  • Skull fracture
  • Compression of basal cisterns
  • Diffuse SAH or SAH involving basal cisterns
  • Subacute or chronic SDH
SAH = subarachnoid hemorrhage, SDH = subdural hemorrhage, IPH = intraparenchymal hemorrhage

Patients were considered to be low risk if they had only one or two category A lesions. If they had more than two, or any Category B lesions, they were higher risk and transfer was considered justified.

The authors retrospectively reviewed their experience with these patients over a three year period. They followed patients to see if they needed neurosurgical intervention, and evaluated the cost savings of avoiding selective transfers based on their criteria.

Here are the factoids:

  • A total of 2120 patients were studied, with 68% low risk and 32% high risk
  • Two of the low risk patients (0.14%)  ultimately required neurosurgical intervention, compared to 21% of high risk patients
  • Mean age (56), and patients taking anticoagulants or antiplatelet agents were the same in the two groups, about 2-3% for each
  • System saving by avoiding EMS transfer costs would have been $734K had the low risk patients been kept at the initial hospital

Bottom line: This study was presented as a Quick Shot paper at this year’s Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma meeting, so there are some key details missing. Was there an association between anticoagulation or antiplatelet agent and two failures in the low risk group? What were they, and what intervention did they require?

If this data holds up to publication, then it may provide a useful tool for deciding to keep minimal TBI patients at the local hospital. This is usually far more convenient for the patient and their family, but would require additional education of the clinicians at that hospital to help them become comfortable managing these patients. 

We use a similar tool within our Level I trauma center to decide which patients require a neurosurgical consultation. Since the low risk patients almost never require intervention, our trauma service provides comprehensive management while in hospital, and arranges for TBI clinic followup post-discharge. You can view and download a copy using the link below.

Link: Regions Hospital SAH/IPH/Skull fracture practice guideline

Reference: Redefining minimal traumatic brain injury (MTBI): a novel CT criteria to predict intervention. Quick Shot Paper #48, EAST 2019.

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.

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.