SLO County hospital to upgrade for trauma status

Victims of the most severe car wrecks, fires and other emergencies in San Luis Obispo County are expected to benefit from Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center being named the local trauma center.

All four local hospitals would continue to provide emergency care, but the impending status designates Sierra Vista as the region’s central facility equipped to provide the highest level of care to the most critically injured patients.

With its status as a Level III trauma center set to take effect March 1, the San Luis Obispo hospital is adding staff, equipment and facilities to meet the requirements of the newly approved designation.

Approved by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, the trauma center status is designed to provide more streamlined access to critical care for victims of emergencies.

To that end, Sierra Vista has hired a trauma program manager and bought a second CT scanner, and is working to install a helicopter landing site by mid-year, according to registered nurse Sue Fortier, the hospital’s trauma nurse manager.

Dubbed a “helistop,” it would be atop the hospital’s five-story parking structure and large enough to accommodate an aircraft as large as a Black Hawk military helicopter, she said.

Sierra Vista would not get an influx of new patients as the result of the new status because many of the most critically injured patients in San Luis Obispo County already are treated there when they need neurosurgery, Fortier added.

She said consultants hired to assist with the trauma-system planning are projecting between 250 and 300 major trauma patients per year, and that the hospital expects a modest increase in the number of patients.

The status is effective through June 20, 2013. Fortier said the hospital would then ask for a review by the American College of Surgeons, and renewals would be valid for every two years thereafter.

This week’s approval of the trauma center status came after almost a decade of planning.

In 2002, the California Emergency Medical Services provided grant funding to San Luis Obispo County to develop a trauma-treatment system, according to a report to supervisors by county Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm and county Health Officer Penny Borenstein.

The county’s original plans envisioned multiple Level III trauma centers, and all four local hospitals had submitted letters of intent to apply for the designation by fall 2004, according to their report.

But in the following months, all four withdrew their stated intents, citing finances and management changes, the report adds.By October 2010, the county asked Sierra Vista and French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo to come up with plans for obtaining trauma-center status. Only Sierra Vista responded, according to Hamm and Borenstein’s report.

French Hospital has its own specialty designation as a STEMI center, which focuses on cardiac care, wrote Steve Lieberman, county emergency medical services director, in an email to The Tribune.

A STEMI — for ST segment elevation myocardial infarction — is considered the most critical type of heart attack, during which a coronary artery is completely blocked by a clot.

When asked whether trauma patients needing critical cardiac care would be moved to French Hospital, Sierra Vista officials said that any transfer decisions would be based on whether it’s in a given patient’s best interest, and that some patients might be transferred to another hospital based on their needs.

The trauma-center designation also comes with a professional and community education obligation, which would include efforts to prevent injuries that could lead to deaths or disabilities.

Fortier said Sierra Vista also plans to hire a trauma registrar in the coming weeks who would collect and analyze trauma data toward improving the quality of care. The hospital also plans to hire a trauma nurse practitioner to follow patients’ care throughout their hospital stays.