Friday, January 09, 2004


LANE RANGER: Georgia deficient in trauma centers

Lurking under Georgia's radar screen is a public health care crisis that costs hundreds of people their lives each year.

"If Georgia did nothing but become average, we'd save more than 600 lives a year," said Dr. James Patrick O'Neal, state Emergency Medical Services medical director. "If we had a statewide trauma network, we'd save more lives than that."

Vast chunks of Georgia remain unserved by a trauma center, hospitals qualified, equipped and staffed to treat people severely injured in car crashes or other mishaps. Only 14 of the state's hospitals meet the criteria to be designated as trauma centers, and only four, including Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, are designated as Level 1, qualified to give the most extensive level of care.

South of Macon, there is only one Level 1 center, Savannah's Memorial Health University Medical Center.

A large group of Georgia lawmakers heard a heartfelt plea from health care professionals and safety advocates at a Thursday breakfast gathering to do more to address the lack of quality trauma care.

"It is costing more and more to provide this service," said Dr. M. Gage Ochsner, the Savannah facililty's director of trauma services. "Most of our trauma centers have provided it as a community service, but when it starts driving them into the ground, they have to look at [eliminating] it."

O'Neal said two-thirds of Georgia's hospitals are operating in the red, making it more difficult to justify providing expensive trauma coverage.

Complicating the issue even further, said Ken Beverly, chairman of the board for the Georgia Hospital Association, is Georgia's lack of a Good Samaritan law shielding physicians from many of the liabilities involved in emergency room work.

"Doctors don't want to go into emergency rooms," he said.

Injury is the leading cause of death for all Georgians aged 1 to 45, and ranks fourth among Georgians of all ages. It costs us 4,500 lives a year, hundreds of which could be saved if they could be reached, taken to a trauma center and treated within the famous "golden hour."

Yet many Georgians are critically injured on roads hundreds of miles from a trauma center.

"If you are in some of these areas, you can expect to get the same care you got 40 years ago if you're in a motor vehicle crash," said Ochsner.

Lives that can be saved are only part of the story, said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, chairman of Emory University's Department of Emergency Medicine.

"Disabilities can be averted if we do the right things on the front end," he said.

Political leaders who addressed the gathering could do little more than express concern as the state battles a budgetary crisis. "We know there's a problem there, and we're looking for solutions," said House Speaker Terry Coleman (D-Eastman).

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) urged health care officials to "bring your legislators into your emergency rooms and show them how many physicians are needed."

"This is a basic quality-of-life issue," said Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. "This is a life-and-death situation for our citizens."

Not only is south Georgia lacking in level one trauma centers, few hospitals south of Macon are level two centers. The state also lacks an infrastructure in the southern region to provide rapid transport to a trauma center.
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