University of Chicago trauma center linked to shorter ambulance trips to emergency room

Black South Side communities benefit from 2018 opening, a new analysis finds.

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A boy, 14, was critically wounded in a drive-by shooting Aug. 14, 2022, in Hyde Park.

An analysis of ambulance trips a year before and after the University of Chicago’s trauma center opening showed travel for patients from predominantly Black ZIP Codes cut by more than half in some cases.

Sun-Times file

South Side residents suffering from gunshot wounds, car crashes or other serious injuries have seen significantly shorter trips to the emergency room since the University of Chicago’s adult trauma center opened in May 2018, new research shows.

An analysis of more than 27,300 ambulance trips in the year before and the year after the Level I trauma center’s opening showed travel for patients from predominantly Black ZIP codes cut by more than half in some cases, according to an article published Wednesday in the medical journal JAMA Surgery.

The average time for an emergency patient in ZIP code 60649, which is primarily South Shore, for instance, saw mean transportation times drop from almost 17 ½ minutes the year before the trauma center opened to 8 ½ minutes during the year after, lead researcher Ali Abbasi told the Chicago Sun-Times. 

By comparison, the mean ambulance transport time for a North Side patient in 60613 (Lakeview) remained about the same at just under 6 minutes both before and after, said Abbasi, a former U of C medical student who’s now a resident in general surgery at University of California San Francisco. 

“That’s a huge difference,” Abbasi said. “For people who are severely injured — as, unfortunately, many who are shot on the South Side of Chicago are — that can really make a big difference.” 

The research doesn’t break down the number of ambulance trips for gunshot wounds but Abbasi said the Hyde Park emergency department treats a high number of shooting victims on the South Side.

“For an area with such high incidents of gun violence you need Level I trauma care,” he said. “People who are shot tend to be much more severely injured than other types of injuries. So, for those people specifically, that time period can make a huge difference.”

Sun-Times reporting data show more than 3,700 shooting victims in Chicago so far this year, including a high number on the South Side. 

The study also found significant decreases in other ZIP codes, including 60619 (Chatham) which saw ambulance times reduced by 8 minutes and 60617 (South Chicago), which saw trip times decrease by more than 6 minutes, Abbasi said. 

North Side residents have had and continue to have far more options for trauma treatment. The U of C site became the first Level I adult trauma center designated on Chicago’s South Side in almost 30 years. The now-closed Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center ceased being a trauma center in early 1990. U of C had stopped offering trauma care in 1988, setting off years of demonstrations in the community.

Level I can treat the most severe conditions, which includes injuries from shootings, stabbings, car crashes, falls and burns, around the clock with multiple specialists.

The researchers did not make conclusions about the number of lives saved but did reference another study that showed in Chicago, a 5-minute increase in transportation time may decrease survival among trauma patients by 0.5%.

Abbasi and the research team, mostly other doctors with U of C ties, plan to look at mortality data to determine survival outcomes.

The study’s authors said other cities could benefit from opening trauma centers in underserved areas, a step toward addressing wide health care disparities.

“It’s no accident of history where the trauma centers in Chicago were located,” Abbasi said. “Reopening this trauma center goes some way toward fixing that history of Chicago as a segregated city.” 

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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