A fourth-year member of Students for Health Equity (SHE), I became involved with the trauma center campaign three years ago through Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), a group that has been advocating for city, state, and federal support for trauma care since Damian Turner’s death in 2010. Before then, trauma surgeons and hospitals statewide were among a handful of groups aware of the deficiencies in the city’s trauma system. Recognizing the need for improvement in the trauma system, trauma directors from hospitals across the state have submitted a series of recommendations to the Illinois Department of Public Health regarding the state’s trauma system. This is not a new issue, and we are not the only ones working on it.
A Maroon op-ed recently encouraged the trauma center campaign to drop the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) as a target and instead focus on state and federal support for a trauma center. The author argued that advocating for a trauma center at the UCMC is misdirected. I am writing my B.A. on the history of the Illinois trauma system. Perhaps a little more information about this system and about the trauma center campaign’s allies will assuage the author’s and others’ fear that the campaign for a trauma center is solely about “shaming UCMC.”
To respond to a claim made in the article, Chicago’s trauma system was by no means a “bizarre citywide trauma fad.” Chicago did not participate in the original Illinois trauma system when it was formed in the 1970s. In 1984, the tragic death of high school basketball star Ben Wilson put a spotlight on the severe deficiencies of Chicago’s emergency medical system. Wilson was 17 years old and a resident of the South Side. Public pressure and outrage over what was seen as the preventable death of a promising young man prompted the formation of the Chicago trauma system. The system was then revamped, and Chicago hospitals were officially designated as trauma centers. Around the same time, a Trauma Center Fund was created at the state level, which further encouraged hospitals to participate.
Chicago has an acceptable number of trauma centers. However, because hospitals voluntarily include themselves in the trauma system, these are not distributed optimally across the city. Hospitals can enter and leave the trauma system as they see fit. In 1988, UCMC was able to join and leave the system with virtually no consequences after participating for a mere eight months. Our current system can only manage the demand because hospitals like Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn have repeatedly stepped up over the past 20 years to provide this service to the otherwise abandoned South Side and southern suburbs.
There are many ways to strengthen the Illinois trauma system, which has an extremely minimal Trauma Center Fund and poor administrative support at IDPH. One way is to follow the example of Maryland, where trauma is funded fully by the state through a number of measures. For example, Maryland has matched the Medicaid reimbursement rate to the Medicare reimbursement for trauma. They also generate funds by adding a small fee of about $2.50 to car registrations. Public funding has given Maryland’s lead trauma agency the power to influence trauma center locations and designations.
FLY recently took these and other recommendations to Congressman Bobby Rush, who plans to advocate for trauma care at the national level. At the state level, we have been working with Representatives Mitchell, Flowers, and Hunter. Aldermen Cochran, Beale, Hairston, Burns, and Dowell have all voiced support for a South Side trauma center. We have organizational endorsements from Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, Illinois Single Payer Chicago, Physicians for a National Health Program Illinois, the National Nurses United, and more.
But we need more than support. We need a qualified hospital to act as a Level-I or Level-II facility on the South Side. That’s why we have targeted the UCMC: Anyone who has been to the community hospitals on the South Side knows that they are understaffed in their daily operations and currently in no position to take on a trauma unit.
The trauma center activists aren’t merely one group. Over the past three years, it has grown from undergraduates in SHE and youth in FLY, to medical students at Pritkzer, physicians at UCMC, local and state officials, and physicians and surgeons from all major hospitals in Chicago. Changing the trauma system will involve multiple players, and the trauma center coalition is working to bring them together.
Akshaya Kannan is a fourth-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.