When Newton County residents get into a car accident or take a nasty fall they become trauma patients and, as such, must be taken to a trauma center, which means an ambulance or helicopter ride into Atlanta or to Walton Regional Medical Center in Monroe.
Any hospital can become a trauma center, and local resident Carolyn Phillips recently queried The News about the non-trauma center status of Newton Medical Center.
"I feel Newton Medical Center is bigger and better equipped and has a larger staff of well-qualified physicians than Walton Regional in Monroe," Phillips said in her letter to the editor. "Is my healthcare in better hands if I am not taken to my local and closest hospital?"
Newton Medical CEO Jim Weadick said the hospital has considered becoming a trauma center, but conditions haven't yet been right."We make constant changes in the way we do things," Weadick said. "If money is available and the change is appropriate with staff and administration, we would move forward."
There are four levels of trauma centers in Georgia, ranging from a Level IV like nearby Morgan Memorial Hospital to a Level I facility like Grady Memorial Hospital.
Morgan Memorial's trauma coordinator Robyn Vassey said a Level IV designation isn't much different from an emergency room, except for the fact her staff receives additional training on how to indentify injuries and decide which level of trauma center a patient needs. For instance, Morgan Memorial's trauma center will not handle any patient who needs surgery, but can handle minor cases.
Each subsequent level requires more training, equipment and staff. Level I centers are required to have all types on surgeons constantly on hand, including neurosurgeons. This is why the most serious accidents, which are almost bound to involve head injuries, are life-flighted to Grady.
Vassey said the biggest benefit to her hospital is the extra training for her staff and the ability to provide trauma patients with basic life support and stabilization services.
"I think it's better for the patients to go to a trauma center, even as small as we are, to stabilize (the patients) and ship them out," Vassey said. "It doesn't take much more time outside of regular meetings."
Given the fact the Newton Medical Center is significantly larger than Morgan Memorial, it would likely apply for either Level III or Level II trauma center status, if it ever decided to become a trauma center status.
Out of Georgia's 150 acute-care hospitals, 18 are trauma centers. Hospitals choose to become trauma centers for various reasons, improving patient care, access to additional educational resources and increased marketability. Making money is not one of those reasons.
According to March 11 article "Trauma centers make strides despite funding woes" in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, WellStar Health System spent $4 million to make Kennestone Hospital in Cobb County a Level II center by hiring more trauma surgeons and creating a trauma database.
Trauma centers lose money for hospitals, similar to emergency rooms, because many patients are uninsured or don't have adequate medical insurance. While the metro Atlanta has a significant number of trauma centers, South Georgia is severely lacking in trauma centers, leading to an additional 700 deaths each year, according to a 2006 report by the Joint Comprehensive State Trauma Services Study Committee.
In order to have the best chance of survival, patients must be able to be transported to a trauma center within one hour of an accident or fall - the so-called "golden hour."
Therefore, a trauma care network is an investment the state needs to make, but funding in Georgia is an issue. In November's General Election, Georgians voted down a constitutional amendment that would have added $10 to the state's car tag fee in order to better fund trauma care.
The Super Speeder Law, which tacks an additional $200 fine on drivers traveling well above the legal speed limits, funds the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission. However, revenue from the law, which went into effect January 2010, has fallen well short of expectations. The state is considering alternative funding methods.
In addition to funding issues, higher levels of trauma center designation can put additional demands and strain on hospital staff.
Because Newton County falls within the one-hour range of several advanced trauma centers, Weadick said he believed that residents were receiving a high level of care.
Newton emergency medical personnel are trained on where to transport trauma patients, and they said Newton residents who experience any significant injuries are taken to Atlanta Medical Center, a Level II center. Minor injuries are transported to Walton Regional, a Level III center.
Weadick said Newton Medical will consider becoming a trauma center in the future.
"Whenever we see there are needs in medical care we do our best to remedy it," Weadick said, pointing to upgrades to the neonatal unit, improved wound care for non-healing wounds and a second CT scanner.