Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital well on its way to becoming trauma center

While Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital faces a long process in becoming a designated Level II trauma center, officials at the hospital say many of the pieces are already in place. (File Photo)

ALBANY — Trauma impacts everyone in society, accounting for hundreds of deaths from injuries each day in the United States.

In a matter of two years, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital is expected to be able to call itself a designated Level II trauma center, solidifying a status the hospital is largely already carrying.

“This is not a short process, but we are moving (at a strong pace),” Phoebe Putney Health System COO Joe Austin said at a recent Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County meeting. “We are putting out job descriptions and posting them already.”

A trauma center includes emergency room staff, trauma surgeons, nurses, surgical residents, a respiratory therapist, radiology technologist, clinical technologist, blood bank technologist and a scribe. The levels range from I-IV, with Level I being the highest.

“We are already taking care of these trauma patients,” Dr. Kathy Hudson, medical staff chief for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said at the Hospital Authority meeting. “I think standardizing it will only improve the care we are giving.

“This is a huge benefit. We are not expanding what we are doing. Albany is doing this, we are just improving it.”

Phoebe announced last month that it would be seeking the Level II designation from the Georgia Office of Emergency Medical Services/Trauma. The main distinction is Level I centers conduct research and education and participate in the training of residents in emergency medicine.

“We have been (at the equivalent) of a Level II since I have been here, but we have never sought (the designation),” Phoebe Medical Director of Emergency Medical Services Dr. James Black said.

The incentive to designate more trauma centers throughout Georgia is the realization that the death rate from traumatic injuries increases as the distance from a trauma center increases.

“The patients do better (with a trauma center nearby),” Black said. “It becomes something that not only improves trauma care but patient services. It gives us a reporting structure and data. It moves the needle, and makes us better.”

Black, who has been with Phoebe 13 years, said there have been pockets of interest in the organization for some time in seeking designation. A multidisciplinary team was put together, which visited other trauma centers and conducted fact-finding.

This gave Phoebe an opportunity communicate with other centers about the information the hospital needs to be successful in this process, including pitfalls other centers have faced.

“(During the fact-finding), we saw we were (well) positioned and don’t think we are lacking in any resources,” Black said. “It was a great time of sharing information. They were offering advice and help.

“(We learned) we wanted to make sure we have dedicated personnel to trauma (rather than stretching existing personnel). They also found that quality rose in trauma care and other sub-specialties.”

In some instances, when a designated trauma center is equidistant to Phoebe, trauma cases have gotten diverted from the hospital due to the lack of trauma designation. Once that status changes, so should the number of trauma cases coming in.

“I look forward to being able to take care of those patients here,” Black said.

In order for Phoebe to achieve the Level II status, it needs to close any existing gaps in its 24/7 surgical coverage and clinical medical staffing and appoint personnel specific to trauma including trauma surgeons, a trauma coordinator and trauma medical director as well as improve helipad proximity to the hospital’s emergency center.

Recruiting the necessary skillsets may not be much of a challenge for Phoebe.

“There has been some interest,” Black said. “We have received word from people who have heard we have pursued this.”

The new helipad will be built on top of the parking garage next to the emergency department, eliminating a number of parking spaces. The Albany-Dougherty Historic Preservation Commission has approved a plan to raze several structures adjacent to Phoebe that sustained major storm damage two years ago to make room for additional parking, and relieve overcrowding in the small parking lots designated for emergency room and Community Care Clinic patients.

The designation has received the green light from Phoebe’s board of directors. After that step, the hospital was to submit its intent to the Georgia Region VIII EMS Council and OEMS/T, conduct a community leadership presentation and obtain and implement a trauma data registry that will be set up and maintained by a trauma registrar.

“A year’s worth of data (will be collected reflecting) how much trauma we see, and what kind we see,” Black said. “A lot of things we don’t see as trauma is trauma.”

Next year, the trauma coordinator and trauma medical director are expected to be onboarded along with the trauma surgeons. The trauma data will be collected, which leads to the anticipated completion of the helipad.

“While (the current helipad setup) is serviceable, it is not ideal,” Black said.

In 2021, the trauma program accreditation survey is to be conducted, and state trauma funding will be sought before the designation becomes official later that year.

The state trauma funding largely comes from the revenue generated from Georgia’s super-speeder law, which Austin said brings in $25 million annually.

“Overall, this (designation) enhances the reputation and image of the hospital,” he said.

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I'm a 2007 graduate of Georgia Southern University, and I've been a reporter for The Albany Herald since 2008. I cover news related to health care, Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, SOWEGA Council on Aging and other areas as assigned.