Given how much my health insurance checks eat into my income, I shouldn’t need to worry about the kind of trauma care I’d get if I were ever in a car accident (knock on wood). But should I?
A new School of Medicine study reveals that even insured patients might be at risk for getting poor trauma care for severe injuries – possibly at greater risk than uninsured patients.
Why? Simply because emergency doctors at hospitals lacking a trauma center decide to keep them there instead of sending them to a hospital with more expertise.
Ironically, insured trauma patients are admitted at non-trauma hospitals at higher rates than uninsured patients are, researchers find. Ergo, insured patients may end up missing out on critical resources that trauma centers are equipped with for severe injuries.
Our press release on the study published online today reports on the researchers’ findings from analyzing more than 4,500 nationwide reported trauma cases.
Why would non-trauma hospitals want to hold on to insured patients? One possible reason is that sometimes emergency doctors fail to recognize conditions that need extra care, lead author M. Kit Delgado, MD, suggests. Hospitals may also be used to taking care of certain severe injuries on their own.
But there might also be other reasons. As Delgado elaborates in the release:
Doctors working in the trenches most often strive to do what’s best for patients. But these findings are concerning and suggest that non-trauma centers are considering admitting some patients with life-threatening injuries based on whether or not they can be paid, when research has shown these patients fare better if transferred to a trauma center.
Delgado carried out the research when he was an emergency medicine instructor at Stanford. He is currently an emergency care research scholar at University of Pennsylvania.
Calling the finding “very disturbing,” Nancy Wang, MD, senior author – and an emergency physician herself – says researchers must call attention to such disparities in trauma care. She and colleagues previously discovered disparities in access to trauma care at California hospitals between children with and without insurance.
“I believe in health care as a right,” Wang wrote to me. “I never believed that there would be disparities in access to emergency trauma care based on insurance status.”
The authors suggest closer monitoring of emergency room encounters and splitting costs between hospitals and trauma centers as potential ways to curb such practices.
In follow-up studies, they also hope to figure out how much patients know about their options, and whether their preferences are being taken into account. As Delgado says in the press release, “People who have insurance may not realize that they could do better if they are transferred.”
Previously: Comparing the cost-effectiveness of helicopter transport and ambulances for trauma victims
Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives