The goal of getting the “right patient to the right place at the right time” is embodied by the inclusive, regionalized trauma system. This system is driven by the knowledge that surviving traumatic injury depends on reaching the appropriate level of definitive care as soon as possible.
But significant gaps remain: One in three Americans live in a region without a complete trauma system. When an injury occurs, oftentimes people nearby don’t know what to do beyond calling 911, and some first responders such as police officers may lack medical training. Some patients may not be sent to the most appropriate trauma center for the severity of their injuries or may live in rural areas with limited trauma center access, introducing critical delays in care. These gaps impede a successful recovery and can cost lives.
America’s trauma system has achieved dramatic advances over the past 50 years. But that progress hasn’t reached every injured patient yet. In our fourth story, we outline the gaps that need to be closed in the system. Then in our fifth story, we will discuss steps that national trauma leaders are taking to close those gaps and complete the nation’s trauma system.
In medicine, it’s called the “golden hour”—getting the trauma patient to definitive care within an hour of the injury for the best chance of survival before shock causes damage to organs. But some injured people don’t have an hour: for instance, those who are bleeding heavily may have just minutes to live unless the bleeding is slowed or stopped.4
“There is no such thing as a ‘Golden Hour’ for a patient with severe blood loss,” said Mark Gestring, MD, FACS, member of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma (ACS COT) and Chair of its Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Committee, who said uncontrolled bleeding is the leading cause of preventable trauma death.
That’s why there is growing recognition of the importance of “turning bystanders into immediate responders”—those who happen to be near the patient when the injury occurs. An immediate responder who has been trained in basic bleeding control with a tourniquet, or wound packing supplies, may mean the difference between life and death before EMS personnel arrive.
But few civilians today know what to do to help someone who is severely injured, even amid the growing number of multicasualty events that resemble battlefield scenes: Sandy Hook, Paris, and San Bernardino, to name a few. Between 2000 and 2013, there were 1,043 casualties from mass shootings in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“These incidents have really changed the playing field for trauma centers—making it much more like a military scene,” Dr. Gestring said.
Applying military trauma care practices to domestic mass casualty incidents is “relevant and timely,” Dr. Gestring said. An example is the successful medical response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing where there were more than 260 casualties, many victims with injury patterns similar to blast injuries seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.7
In recent years, the military has had great success in extending life-saving care far into the field.9,10,11
In the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, preventing a severe bleeding death in victims who have a survivable injury has been the focus of work of the Joint Committee to Create a National Policy to Enhance Survivability from Intentional Mass Casualty and Active Shooters Events, convened by the American College of Surgeons. The committee’s deliberations are known as the “Hartford Consensus” because the group’s inaugural meeting occurred in Hartford, CT. The committee’s first “Hartford Consensus” report strongly recommended the public be trained in bleeding control methods.
In October 2015, ACS, in partnership with President Obama’s administration and Federal Agencies including the Department of Defense, launched the Stop the Bleed® campaign. It has since been supported by more than 40 partner organizations that have helped train the public in controlling bleeding, distributed bleeding control kits, and promoted the initiative in materials and social media.
Trauma systems depend on EMS, including 911 call systems, ambulances, and skilled emergency personnel to provide the critical link between an injury event and definitive care. Within the ideal trauma system, EMS will stabilize the injured patient and get them to the appropriate level of care as quickly as possible for further intervention.
Yet today there is a wide range of skills, consistency, and organization among EMS systems in the United States. There are 21,283 credentialed EMS agencies—a mix of private, public, and volunteer systems that often operate independently and sometimes at odds with each other.17
As the nation’s health system evolves, EMS has not been treated as an essential component of medical care:
An inclusive trauma care system incorporates every community health care facility to match the needs of the injured to the appropriate levels of care, ensuring that the most severely injured have access to the highest level of care while minimizing duplication of expensive resources across the system.31
Central to any such trauma system is the proper number and location of large, resource-rich trauma centers (Levels I and II). There are nearly 2,000 trauma centers in the United States: 213 Level I, 313 Level II, 470 Level III, and 916 Level IV or V centers.33
The continuum of care for trauma patients depends on timely, structured, cooperation and communication across all providers, hospitals and EMS agencies. Breaks in the continuum “almost certainly contribute to excess morbidity and mortality.”
Yet today, trauma systems do not always communicate and work smoothly with other trauma systems in the region, especially across state lines.Further, many areas across the country have not implemented the essential elements of a trauma system,and trauma centers may not comply with best practices established by the ACS Committee on Trauma, and other organizations, leading to inconsistent quality of trauma care. A study of 55 trauma centers found that only one was compliant with 32 practice protocols, while half were compliant with 14 of the 32. Variable compliance leads to variable patient outcomes.36
The uneven distribution of trauma centers across the country further contributes to inconsistency in patient outcomes. Injured patients are more likely to die if they do not have access to an appropriate level of trauma care within an hour of their injury.
“In many regions, trauma centers are not distributed based on the needs of the population, they are established based on hospital-driven priorities, often including profitability,” said Robert J. Winchell, MD, FACS, Chair, ACS Trauma Systems Evaluation and Planning Committee. “As a result, some areas are left completely uncovered, while other regions are over-served. While rural areas are more likely to lack a trauma center, even some of the nation’s largest cities do not have enough trauma centers to care for seriously injured patients, especially in low-income neighborhoods.”
Just 24 percent of those who live in rural areas have access to a Level I or II trauma center within one hour, while 86 percent of suburban and 95 percent of urban residents have timely access.39,40
These gaps are particularly troubling given that trauma systems are the backbone of the disaster response.
Responding to a mass casualty event or national disaster requires a coordinated effort between many local, state and national emergency service providers. In many states, however, EMS and emergency preparedness programs are housed in separate agencies, operate on separate state and federal funding streams, and may rarely communicate.
“A strong trauma system that functions well on a daily basis is the best preparation for mass casualty events,” said Dr. Winchell. “Trauma systems should be prioritized as part of readiness, and must be tightly integrated into disaster and crisis response, but this is not always the case.”
A regional trauma system takes a three-pronged approach to improving the quality of care for injured patients: Identifying the problem based on data, developing and implementing an intervention, and evaluating the outcome of the intervention. Data on the processes and outcomes of care within a system are critical to ensuring that the system evolves and improves over time.
Although ACS has established a process for performance improvement across trauma centers, there is no equivalent national program yet for prehospital care. Generally, EMS systems follow medical protocols that may be local, countywide, regional, or statewide.
Also, until state-level EMS data are linked with trauma registries, it is difficult to track the injured patient across stages of trauma care (especially if they are transferred), or determine time from 911 calls to arrival at appropriate trauma centers and transfer times.
“Amazon can track a package from the moment it leaves its warehouse to the moment it arrives at your house,” said Eileen Bulger, MD, FACS, member of the Executive Committee of the ACS COT. “But we currently cannot track a patient from their point of injury until they return home.”
Perhaps the most significant effort to establish evidence-based measures for prehospital care is EMS Compass, an ongoing initiative of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office. There also is hope that EMS Compass could enable benchmarking of EMS performance, serving as the first step toward the creation of a program similar to TQIP for comparing and assessing EMS systems.
Data are critical to research, which is the empirical feedback loop that validates and sustains continuous improvement in trauma care. Research findings help define best practices and can alter the course of system development. Research activity is a required capability of high-level trauma centers.
But much more must be done.
Injury accounts for nearly 10 percent of total disability-adjusted life years lost in the U.S. each year and is the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 46. Injuries cost the U.S. $671 billion in 2013. Even so, injury receives only about one percent, or $399 million, of the National Institutes of Health’s $30 billion biomedical research budget. 50
“We can improve care for injured patients by attending to them immediately, stabilizing and getting them to the most appropriate level of care, strengthening our trauma systems, and improving the quality of trauma care through data and research that can lead to improved practices and higher standards,” Ronald M. Stewart, MD, FACS, Chair, ACS Committee on Trauma, said. “Traumatic injury is the leading health crisis facing our children and our uniformed service personnel in combat, and we must act now to improve care, save more lives, and ensure our national security and preparedness.”
Coming Next: Now is the Time to Complete the Nation’s Trauma System
For 50 years, the trauma community, government agencies and partner organizations have worked together to establish the nation’s trauma system, leading to world-class care in many areas. Today, trauma leaders are working together to complete the nation’s trauma system. In our next story, we will outline steps being taken to fill in the remaining gaps to achieve the goal of zero preventable deaths and disability from traumatic injury.