Guest Post: Why Some Chicago Hospitals Won’t Treat Victims Of Gun Violence
The following post was written by researchers at Instant Checkmate, a public records search service.
By: Instant Checkmate
Kevin Perry, 26, was one of three recent victims of gun violence in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. He and two others were inside a vehicle when a masked man approached them and opened fire. All three are in stable condition, but this shooting is part of a slew of gun-related incidents happening every day on Chicago’s South Side. In fact, a 33-year-old man was shot and killed the night before, just one mile west of where Perry and his two friends were shot. “This is the life of Chicago. Maybe it’s the color I am, maybe it’s the color I’m wearing or whatever,” Perry said. “This is Chicago.”
While politicians and law enforcement seek out tighter gun control law and harsher penalties for illegal gun ownership, a very sad reality of Chicago’s notorious high crime rates is that victims of gun violence have limited treatment options. While the city has an adequate number of trauma centers, communities with the highest number of shooting incidents are ironically also the farthest from the trauma centers that can treat gunshot wounds. The number of trauma centers in Chicago is proportionate to the city’s population; the issue is that where they’re located doesn’t reflect where they’re most needed.
We’re talking about Chicago’s South Side. Although hotspots for violent crime– Auburn Gresham, 63rd and Halsted, Englewood–are within miles of three major hospitals, gunshot victims aren’t transported to these hospitals because they don’t offer trauma care units. The highly regarded University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), in the heart of the South Side, only has a trauma center for victims aged 15 and younger.
In response to years of protesting from Chicago’s South Side communities, the UCMC Dean, Kenneth Polonsky, held a public meeting last May to explain why the Medical Center couldn’t provide trauma care to a population that needed it. Citing overcapacity and insufficient resources, Polonsky rejected the calls for opening a trauma care center at his facility. Another hospital would have to address that need.
Unfortunately trauma centers are a costly endeavor. Because they require a huge number of on-call medical specialists, extra operating rooms, and receive very little federal funding, a fully operational trauma center would cost $20 to $40 million a year. UCMC did actually open an adult trauma care unit in 1986. However, due to annual losses of $2 million and overburdened facilities serving the high number of trauma victims on the South Side, the specialized care center closed its doors two years later.
As was the case of UCMC’s trauma care center, South Side trauma patients are often poor and uninsured. This fact makes providing high-quality intensive care costly and unappealing for hospitals located in high-poverty areas. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), passed by Congress in 1986, outlawed diverting poor and uninsured patients to other facilities (called “patient-dumping”), and barred hospitals from transferring patients to a new facility unless onsite treatment was insufficient. Despite the EMTALA’s best intentions to equalize emergency care, researchers have noted an increase in transfers of poor and uninsured patients to trauma units, even when the move wasn’t necessary.
UCMC does note that they wouldn’t turn away a gunshot victim arriving on their own to UCMC’s emergency room. Treatment, however, would depend on if “appropriate resources” were available at the time of need; the preferred option would be to transport the victim to a designated trauma center. That’s why adult trauma victims are taken directly by ambulance to the nearest trauma center (even when another hospital is much closer), and that’s why the group called Fearless Leadership by the Youth (FLY) claims their that leader and co-founder died. After getting caught in the crossfire of a drive-by just blocks from UCMC, 18-year-old Damian Turner’s ambulance bypassed the hospital and instead drove 11.5 miles to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s trauma care center. Damien died during transport.
Stories like this have elicited ongoing public outrage from South Side community activists, and now from state and federal legislators. In November, State Sen. Mattie Hunter called a committee meeting to analyze whether mortalities from gunshot wounds on the South Side were related to specialized care centers being located too far away for patients to receive life-saving treatment on time. Since most trauma centers are in Chicago’s southern suburbs and North and West sides, she wants a comprehensive care center to treat the South Side’s most critical injuries related to gunshot wounds, car accidents, and other acts of violence.
Dr. Marie Crandall, a researcher and trauma surgeon at Northwestern University, also provided the committee with a report that sided with advocates of trauma center construction in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Compiling 11 years of patient data, she concluded that risk of mortality is 21 percent higher among gunshot victims who live more than five miles from a trauma center. Despite their close proximity to three major hospitals, South Side neighborhoods are more than five miles from any trauma center. For a quarter of South Side’s residents, the distance warrants a 30-minute ambulance ride.
Crandall suggested that relocating Advocate Trinity Hospital would shorten the length of ambulance ride times. Others, including community activist groups and health professionals, pushed for the University of Chicago to open a trauma center. “There is no better institution to do it,” said Dr. Phillip Verhoef, who works in the intensive care unit at the U of C’s Medical Center and Comer Children’s Hospital. “I don’t think there’s anyone else who can step up and provide trauma care the way the University of Chicago can.”
Restating what Polonsky said earlier last year, the UCMC has no plans to open a trauma care center. Despite the uphill battle, South Side residents are making small strides in bringing national attention to the issue of gun violence and inadequate medical treatment in their neighborhoods.