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Transfer Times to Definitive Care Facilities Are Too Long: A Consequence of an Immature Trauma System

Harrington, David T. MD; Connolly, Michael MD; Biffl, Walter L. MD; Majercik, Sarah D. MD; Cioffi, William G. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.sla.0000164178.62726.f1
Original Articles

Objective: The purpose of this study was to review our experience with interfacility transfers to identify problems that could be addressed in the development of a statewide trauma system.

Background: The fundamental tenet of a trauma system is to get the right patient to the right hospital at the right time. This hinges on well-defined prehospital destination criteria, interfacility transfer protocols, and education of caregivers. Patients arriving at local community hospitals (LOCs) benefit from stabilization and transfer to trauma centers (TCs) for definitive care. However, in the absence of a formalized trauma system, patients may not reach the TC in a timely fashion and may not be appropriately treated or stabilized at LOCs prior to transfer.

Methods: Our facility is a level I TC and regional referral center for a compact geographic area without a formal trauma system. The Trauma Registry was queried for adult patients admitted to the trauma service between January 1, 2001 and March 30, 2003. Patients were divided into 2 groups: those received directly from the scene (DIR) and those transferred from another institution (TRAN). Medical records were reviewed to elucidate details of the early care. Data are presented as mean ± SEM. Continuous data were compared using Student t test, and categorical data using χ2. Transfer times were analyzed by one-way ANOVA.

Results: A total of 3507 patients were analyzed. The TRAN group had a higher Injury Severity Score (ISS) (17.5 versus 11.0, P < 0.05), lower Glasgow Coma Score (GCS) (13.3 versus 14.1, P < 0.05), lower initial systolic blood pressure (SBP) (130 versus 140, P< 0.05), and higher mortality (10% versus 79%, P < 0.05) than the DIR group. The average time spent at the LOC was 162 ± 8 minutes. The subgroup of patients with hypotension spent an average of 134 minutes at the LOC, often receiving numerous diagnostic tests despite unavailability of surgeons to provide definitive care. Severe head injury (GCS = 3) triggered more prompt transfer, but high ISS was underappreciated and did not result in a prompt transfer in all but the most severely injured group (ISS > 40). Some therapeutic interventions were initiated at the LOCs, but many were required at the TC. A total of 23 (8%) TRAN patients required critical interventions within 15 minutes of arrival; mortality in this group was 52%. Mortality among those requiring laparotomy after transfer was 33%.

Conclusions: All but the most severely injured patients spend prolonged periods of time in LOCs, and many require critical interventions upon arrival at the TC. It is unreasonable to expect immediate availability of surgeons or operating rooms in LOCs. Thus, trauma system planning efforts should focus on 1) prehospital destination protocols that allow direct transport to the TC; and 2) education of caregivers in LOCs to enhance intervention skill sets and expedite transfer to definitive care.

The establishment of a regional trauma center has increased the number and the severity of patients transferred to our tertiary center from outlying hospitals. Unfortunately, the lack of an organized statewide trauma system is associated with excessive emergency room times at the outlying hospitals, and many transferred patients arrive at our trauma center unstable.

From the Rhode Island Hospital Brown Medical, School Department of Surgery, Providence, Rhode Island.

Reprints: David T. Harrington, MD, Rhode Island Hospital, Department of Surgery, 593 Eddy Street, APC 443, Providence, RI 02903. E-mail:

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.