Interhospital Transfer Delays Care for Spinal Cord Injury Patients: A Report from the North American Clinical Trials Network for Spinal Cord Injury

Margot Kelly-Hedrick, Beatrice Ugiliweneza, Elizabeth G. Toups, George Jimsheleishvili, Shekar N. Kurpad, Bizhan Aarabi, James S. Harrop, Norah Foster, Rory C. Goodwin, Christopher I. Shaffrey, Michael G. Fehlings, Charles H. Tator, James D. Guest, Chris J. Neal, Muhammad M. Abd-El-Barr, Theresa Williamson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The North America Clinical Trials Network (NACTN) for Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is a consortium of tertiary medical centers that has maintained a prospective SCI registry since 2004, and it has espoused that early surgical intervention is associated with improved outcome. It has previously been shown that initial presentation to a lower acuity center and necessity of transfer to a higher acuity center reduce rates of early surgery. The NACTN database was evaluated to examine the association between interhospital transfer (IHT), early surgery, and outcome, taking into account distance traveled and site of origin for the patient. Data from a 15-year period of the NACTN SCI Registry were analyzed (years 2005-2019). Patients were stratified into transfers directly from the scene to a Level 1 trauma center (NACTN site) versus IHT from a Level 2 or 3 trauma facility. The main outcome was surgery within 24 hours of injury (yes/no), whereas secondary outcomes were length of stay, death, discharge disposition, and 6-month American Spinal Injury Association Impairment Scale (AIS) grade conversion. For the IHT patients, distance traveled for transfer was calculated by measuring the shortest distance between origin and NACTN hospital. Analysis was performed with Brown-Mood test and chi-square tests. Of 724 patients with transfer data, 295 (40%) underwent IHT and 429 (60%) were admitted directly from the scene of injury. Patients who underwent IHT were more likely to have a less severe SCI (AIS D; p = 0.002), have a central cord injury (p = 0.004), and have a fall as their mechanism of injury (p < 0.0001) than those directly admitted to an NACTN center. Of the 634 patients who had surgery, direct admission to an NACTN site was more likely to result in surgery within 24 hours compared with IHT patients (52% vs. 38%) (p < 0.0003). Median IHT distance was 28 miles (interquartile range [IQR] = 13-62 miles). There was no significant difference in death, length of stay, discharge to a rehab facility versus home, or 6-month AIS grade conversion rates between the two groups. Patients who underwent IHT to an NACTN site were less likely to have surgery within 24 hours of injury, compared with those directly admitted to the Level 1 trauma facility. Although there was no difference in mortality rates, length of stay, or 6-month AIS conversion between groups, patients with IHT were more likely be older with a less severe level of injury (AIS D). This study suggests there are barriers to timely recognition of SCI in the field, appropriate admission to a higher level of care after recognition, and challenges related to the management of individuals with less severe SCI.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1928-1937
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neurotrauma
Issue number17-18
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2023


  • interhospital transfer
  • North American Clinical Trials Network for Spinal Cord Injury
  • spinal cord injury
  • trauma
  • traumatic injury


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