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A revolution in trauma patient care

By Simon Howell


Major trauma impacts on the lives of young and old alike. Most of us know or are aware of somebody who has suffered serious injury. In the United Kingdom over five-thousand people die from trauma each year. It is the most common cause of death in people under forty. Many of the fifteen-thousand people who survive major trauma suffer life-changing injuries and some will never fully recover and require life-long care. Globally it is estimated that injuries are responsible for sixteen-thousand deaths per day together with a large burden of people left with permanent disability. These sombre statistics are driving a revolution in trauma care.

A key aspect of the changes in trauma management in the United Kingdom and around the world is the organisation of networks to provide trauma care. People who have been seriously hurt, for example in a road traffic accident, may have suffered a head injury, injuries to the heart and lungs, abdominal trauma, broken limbs, and serious loss of skin and muscle. The care of these injuries may require specialist surgery including neurosurgery, cardiothoracic surgery, general (abdominal and pelvic) surgery, orthopaedic surgery, and plastic surgery. These must be supported by high quality anaesthetic, intensive care, radiological services and laboratory services. Few hospitals are able to provide all of the services in one location. It therefore makes sense for the most seriously injured patients to be transported not to the nearest hospital but to the hospital best equipped to provide the care that they need. Many trauma services around the world now operate on this principle and from 2010 these arrangements have been established in England. Hospitals are designated to one of three tiers: major trauma centres, trauma units, and local emergency hospitals. The most seriously injured patients are triaged to bypass trauma units and local emergency hospitals and are transported directly to major trauma centres. While this is a new system and some major trauma centres in England have only “gone live” in the past two years, it has already had an impact on trauma outcomes, with monitoring by the Trauma Audit and Research Network (TARN) indicating a 19% improvement in survival after major trauma in England.

Young attractive female doctor looking x-ray photos

Not only have there been advances in the organisation of trauma services, but there have also been advances in the immediate clinical management of trauma. In many cases it is appropriate to undertake “early definitive surgery/early total care” – that is, definitive repair of long bone fractures within twenty-four hours of injury. However, patients who have suffered major trauma often have severe physiological and biochemical derangements by the time they arrive at hospital. The concepts of damage control surgery and damage control resuscitation have emerged for the management of these patients. In this approach resuscitation and surgery are directed towards stopping haemorrhage, performing essential life-saving surgery, and stabilising and correcting the patient’s physiological state. This may require periods of surgery followed by intervals for the administration of blood and clotting factors and time for physiological recovery before further surgery is undertaken. The decision as to whether to undertake early definitive care or to institute a damage control strategy can be complex and is made by senior clinicians working together to formulate an overview of the state of the patient.

Modern radiology and clinical imaging has helped to revolutionise modern trauma management. There is increasing evidence to suggest that early CT scanning may improve outcome in the most unstable patients by identifying life-threatening injuries and directing treatment. When a source of bleeding is identified it may be treated surgically, but in many cases interventional radiology with the placement of glue or metal coils into blood vessels to stop the bleeding offers an alternative and less invasive solution.

The evolution of the trauma team is at the core of modern trauma management. Advances in resuscitation, surgery, and imaging have undoubtedly moved trauma care forward. However, the care of the unstable, seriously injured patient is a major challenge. Transporting someone who is suffering serious bleeding to and from the CT scanner requires excellent teamwork; parallel working so that several tasks are carried out at the same time requires coordination and leadership; making the decision between damage control and definitive surgery requires effective joint decision-making. The emergence of modern trauma care has been matched by the development of the modern trauma team and of specialists dedicated to the care of seriously injured patients. It is to this, above all, that the increasing numbers of survivors from serious trauma owe their lives.

Dr Simon Howell is on the Board of the British Journal of Anaesthesia (BJA) and is the Editor of this year’s Postgraduate Educational Issue: Advances in Trauma Care. This issue contains a series of reviews that give an overview of the revolution in trauma care. The reviews expand on a number of presentations that were given at a two-day meeting on trauma care organised by the Royal College of Anaesthetists in the Spring of 2014. They visit aspects of the trauma patient’s journey from the moment of injury to care in the field, on to triage, and arrival in a trauma centre finally to resuscitation and surgical care.

Founded in 1923, one year after the first anaesthetic journal was published by the International Anaesthesia Research Society, the British Journal of Anaesthesia remains the oldest and largest independent journal of anaesthesia. It became the Journal of The College of Anaesthetists in 1990. The College was granted a Royal Charter in 1992. Since April 2013, the BJA has also been the official Journal of the College of Anaesthetists of Ireland and members of both colleges now have online and print access. Although there are links between BJA and both colleges, the Journal retains editorial independence.

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Image credit: Female doctor looking at x-ray photo, © s-dmit, via iStock Photo.

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