Who Travels By Air?
Getting seriously injured trauma patients to a trauma center quickly is generally believed to be a good thing. And helicopters are usually faster than ground ambulances. So sending severely injured patients by air is a good thing, right?
Not quite so fast, there. There are other concerns as well. Helicopter transport is significantly more expensive. Quarters are very cramped, and you can’t just pull off to the side of the road if major patient or equipment problems arise. And has anybody really shown a survival benefit?
Although there is a (relatively) standard national trauma triage protocol from the CDC that indicates which patients should be transported to a trauma center, there is no standard protocol for who should be transported by air. The University of Rochester School of Medicine looked at 2007 transport data from the National Trauma Databank and tried to determine if the CDC protocol could be adapted to air transport as well.
Over 250,000 patient records were included in the study. As would be expected, patients flown by helicopter tended to be more severely injured, needed intubation more often, and were admitted to an ICU and stayed in the hospital longer. Average transport time for the helicopter was longer (60 mins vs 43 mins), implying longer distance traveled. Using a regression analysis, the authors found that the following subsets of patients had better survival with helicopter transport:
- Penetrating injury
- GCS < 14
- Resp rate <10 or >29
- Age >55
- Any one physiologic criterion and any one anatomic criterion from the CDC protocol
Bottom line: A more standardized set of air transport criteria is needed. Some studies have found that as many as 50% of patients in some communities are flown who do not meet local air transport rules. Time and distance also need to be taken into account, since these will vary widely between rural and less rural areas. This study begins to lay an objective framework of criteria that can be incorporated into a more uniform set of guidelines.
Reference: The National Trauma Triage Protocol: Can this tool predict which patients with trauma will benefit from helicopter transport? J Trauma 73(2):319–325, 2012.
EMS: Do We Actually Follow the CDC Triage Guidelines?
One of the major components of any trauma system is the prehospital piece. These providers extricate, begin medical treatment, and decide where to take the patient. The choice of hospital can make a big difference, and the number of deaths can potentially be reduced by up to 25% by making the right decision. Where to take the patient is not necessarily clear cut, even though CDC guidelines exist to help. Geographic and weather factors can be a factor, as well as patient choice at times (unfortunately), local medical control, or even time of day (traffic).
Harborview and the University of Washington conducted a large retrospective review of the transport patterns for nearly 12,000 injured patients over a 5 year period. They specifically looked at whether CDC guidelines for field triage were being followed. About half were transported to Harborview, the only Level I center in the state. The remainder were transported to the 7 remaining trauma centers, levels III to V. There were a number of interesting findings:
- Patients transported directly to the Level I center were more likely to be young, male, injured by a penetrating mechanism, have worse vital signs and GCS and higher injury severity
- Older patients were less likely to be transported from scene to a Level I center
- The oldest patients were 89% less likely to be transported to the Level I center, either directly or after initial management at a lower level center
Bottom line: For reasons that are not clear, elderly patients were far less likely to be transported to a Level I trauma center by prehospital providers in Washington state. In fact, the guidelines were obeyed only about 50% of the time! Does this happen in other states or countries? We don’t know. Is this a problem? Unfortunately, we also don’t know how much lower the mortality in these patients is when treated at higher level centers. It seems to be, especially in the more severely injured patients. What we do know is that if the guidelines exist, adhere to them unless you have good reason not to. Their life may depend on it!
Reference: Compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention field triage guidelines in an established trauma system. J Amer Col Surg 215(1):148-156, 2012.
Trauma Patient Stability
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.
Trauma Triage Guidelines: There’s An App For That!
The CDC released an iPhone app covering the Field Triage Guidelines for Injured Patients a few months ago. It’s not received much attention, but could be helpful for some trauma professionals.
The app consists of 2 components: a copy of the triage guidelines pocket card, and a quiz about the use and impact of the guidelines. The app is pretty bare-bones, but is a convenient way to keep the guidelines available for immediate reference. It doesn’t look like it’s available for Android yet.
Click the link below to go to the Apple App Store for more information or to download.