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New Trauma Center Sought

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas -- Community leaders and health care leaders are rallying to establish a trauma center in Montgomery County to provide more immediate care in emergency situations such as car accidents or shootings.

That would mean patients could be treated closer to home instead of being transported to one of Houston's two overburdened trauma centers, and it would save valuable time. It takes 40 to 80 minutes to transport a patient by ambulance from Montgomery County to Houston, officials said.

There are no high-level trauma facilities between Houston and The Woodlands or further north on Interstate 45 until Dallas, said Steve Sanders, CEO of Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands Hospital.

Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands and Conroe Regional Medical Center are both moving toward becoming a Level III trauma center that provides resuscitation, stabilization and injury assessment. The center can either provide treatment or transfer patients to a higher-level trauma center.

The move is in response to the county's continued growth in trauma patients, hospital officials said.

"There's definitely a need," Sanders said. "It's one of the things people don't think about. People take hospitals for granted. They think if you're a hospital you must provide trauma care, but not necessarily."

A study to be presented to the community today backs Sanders' and other health care providers' position. It shows that Montgomery County - one of the state's fastest-growing - has enough trauma patients each year to support a Level III trauma center.

And in five years, based on estimated population growth, the county could most likely support a Level II facility, according to the study by The Abaris Group, a California-based consultant firm.

"The challenge is the rapid growth," said Pam Turner, a senior consultant with Abaris.

Steady increase seen

Montgomery Countyhas seen the number of trauma patients increase each year for the past five years. In 2007, the county had about 940 trauma patients. About one-third of them were transported to either Houston's Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center or Ben Taub General Hospital because none of the county's three hospitals was equipped to care for them.

Memorial Hermann and Ben Taub are Level I trauma centers, which provide the most comprehensive emergency care.

The decision by Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands and Conroe Regional Medical Center to establish centers coincides with the yearlong study commissioned by the South Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. The Montgomery County Hospital District and the Southeast Texas Trauma Regional Advisory County helped pay for the $100,000 study.

Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands is now a Level IV center, meaning it stabilizes patients and then transfers them to a higher-level trauma center. By upgrading to the next level, the hospital will have a trauma surgeon, a general surgeon and an orthopedic surgeon available 24 hours, seven days a week.

Sanders said the hospital should have its new center running by September. It will be surveyed by the state in March 2009 and would then receive its designation shortly after that, he said.

ConroeRegional Medical Center dropped its Level III center in 2005 because it did not have physicians who were willing to be on call at all times, said CEO Jerry Nash.

The hospital wants to try again because there is a demand for critical care in the suburbs, and it would help relieve Houston's trauma centers, which are often overcrowded and must divert patients to other hospitals, Nash said.

'They're just saturated'

Patients at his hospital are sometimes held for several hours or overnight because hospital officials can't get them transferred into one of the trauma centers. "They're just saturated," Nash said. "They only have so much capacity."

It costs about $1 million to set up a Level III trauma center and about $6 million a year to run it, according to The Abaris study. The biggest cost is on-call pay for surgeons, the study said.

Patient charges will make up the bulk of revenue to fund the centers, along with state and possibly some local funding, said Sanders and Nash.

The Montgomery County Hospital District, which provides indigent care and EMS services for the county, helped pay for the study and may contribute funding to the centers, said hospital district board member Kenn Fawn.

Fawn said having a trauma center would reduce the amount of time ambulances spend transporting patients to Houston and waiting to get a patient checked in. That, in turn, could save the district money, he said.

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LEVELS OF CARE

Texas has 247 trauma centers that provide emergency health care. The following describes the staff and services required for trauma centers at each level:

Level I: Comprehensive trauma center that provides emergency care 24 hours, seven days a week. Must have a general surgeon, an orthopedic surgeon and a neurological surgeon on call 24/7. Must be affiliated with a medical teaching institution. There are 13 in the state.

Level II: Major trauma center that has same requirements as Level I, but is not required to have medical school affiliation. There are 10 statewide.

Level III: Advanced trauma center that provides same services as Level I and II, but is not required to have a neurosurgeon. It also can transfer patients to a higher-level center. In addition, the facilities provide ongoing educational opportunities in trauma-related topics for health care professionals and the public. There are 43 centers in the state.

Level IV: Basic trauma center that stabilizes patients and transfers them to higher-level trauma center. Sometimes they provide surgery, but they are not required to do so. There are 183 in the state.

Source: Southeast Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council and the Texas Department of State Health Services.

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