Background: Various decision algorithms have been developed for use in the prehospital setting to analyze those trauma patients who do not require spinal immobilization. The feasibility of applying these algorithms in the air medical transport environment has not been studied.
Methods: All adult patients (>/=age 16) transported to three Level I trauma centers were eligible for the study. Medical crews completed a data collection sheet during transport which was later used to analyze whether the transported patient would be eligible for spinal clearance based on the absence of all of the following clinical findings: (1) abnormal level of consciousness; (2) evidence of intoxication; (3) distracting painful injury; (4) spinal tenderness or pain; or (5) abnormal neurologic examination. The outcomes were (1) the proportion of transported patients potentially eligible for spinal clearance and (2) the ability of the algorithm to predict spinal injury.
Results: Three hundred twenty-nine patients were enrolled in the study. Forty-nine (15%) had spinal injuries with 12 (24%) considered unstable. Only 40 patients met criteria for deferring spinal immobilization; 4 of these patients had spinal fractures. The algorithm had a sensitivity of 90% and a specificity of 16%.
Conclusion: Clearance of spinal immobilization using prehospital clinical algorithms during air medical transport did not appear to be useful. These criteria were not found to be sensitive, specific, or predictive of spinal injury in this population of blunt trauma patients. Prehospital spinal immobilization clearance algorithms using existing criteria should not be adopted for patients transported by helicopter.