Background: Air transport of burn patients is plagued by frequent "overtriage." We examined the use of air transport and the feasibility of using alternative methods such as telemedicine to assist in evaluation and treatment of burn patients within our region.
Methods: We reviewed all burn patients transported by air during 2000 to 2001. Each patient was classified as being most appropriate for air, ground, or family transport. In addition, a decision was made regarding whether telemedicine evaluation of the patient before transport could have significantly altered initial treatment decisions.
Results: Two hundred twenty-five acutely burned patients were transferred from referring hospitals in nine states, at a mean distance of 246 air miles. Mean burn size calculated by burn center physicians was 19.7% total body surface area, whereas referring physicians' mean estimate was 29% total body surface area. In 92 cases, over- or underestimation of burn size by referring physicians of as much as 560% or decisions regarding performance of endotracheal intubation suggested that telemedicine evaluation before transport might have significantly altered transport decisions or care. Air transport charges exceeded hospital charges in 21 cases.
Conclusion: Frequent discrepancies in burn assessment contribute to overuse of air transport. The ability to evaluate burn patients by telemedicine may have the potential to assist decisions regarding transfer, avoid errors in initial care, and reduce costs. We are currently attempting to develop and test such a system.