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J Trauma. 2007 Jan;62(1):63-7; discussion 67-8.

Requests for 692 transfers to an academic level I trauma center: implications of the emergency medical treatment and active labor act.

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Department of Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA.



The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) effectively requires Level I trauma centers (TC) to accept all transfers for a higher level of care if capacity exists. We hypothesized that EMTALA would burden a Level I TC by a selective referral of a poor payer mix of primarily nonoperative patients.


All transfer calls (December 2003 and September 2005) to our Level I TC are handled by a dedicated transfer center. Calls were reviewed for age, surgical service requested, and outcome of request. The trauma registry was queried to compare Injury Severity Scale (ISS) score, hospital stay (LOS), operations, mortality, and payer status for transfer and primary catchment patients.


In all, 821 calls were received; 77 calls were cancelled by the referring hospital and 52 were for consultation only. Of the 692 transfer requests, 534 (77%) were accepted, 134 (19%) were denied for no capacity, and only 24 (4%) were declined by TC as not clinically indicated. Transferred patients were younger (32.0 +/- 1.49 versus 38.9 +/- 0.51, p < 0.05), had similar ISS scores (13.6 +/- 0.62 versus 13.7 +/- 0.26) and LOS (7.0 +/- 0.70 versus 7.4 +/- 0.25), but were somewhat more likely to require an operation than direct admissions (58% versus 51%, p < 0.05). Although trauma (24%) and neurosurgery (24%) were the most commonly requested services, followed by orthopedics (20%), orthopedics accounted for 60% of operations on transferred patients compared with 10% to 13% for trauma and neurosurgery (mostly spine). There was no difference in the payer status of transfer and direct admit patients.


Contrary to our assumptions, EMTALA patients had an identical payer mix and similar operative need compared with our primary catchment patients. They do represent a large additional patient load (20% of admissions) and differentially impact specialists, mostly operative for orthopedics and complex nonoperative care for trauma and neurosurgery. These data suggest that the primary motivations for transfer are specialist availability and complexity of care rather than financial concerns. As TCs provide backup specialty call coverage for a wide geographic area, this further supports the need for trauma systems development.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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