There’s always a bit of extra reflection you can’t include in the discussion of a research paper. Dr Alan Garner reflects more on some of the challenges of doing research in prehospital medicine.
The main results of the Head Injury Retrieval Trial have now been published on-line in Emergency Medicine Journal. We have paid the open access fees so that the results are freely available to everyone in the spirit of FOAM. This was an important study that was eagerly awaited by many clinicians around the world.
The summary from my point of view as the chief investigator: an enormous opportunity wasted.
It is now nearly ten years since we commenced recruiting for the trial in May 2005. Significant achievements include obtaining funding for a trial that was ultimately to cost 20 million Australian Dollars to run. I am not aware of another prehospital trial that has come anywhere close to this. Hopefully this is a sign that prehospital care is now seen as worthy of the big research bucks.
In the subsequent ten years world events have helped to drive increasing investment in prehospital trauma research, particularly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the perception that there were many preventable deaths. The US government has become a big investor in prehospital research that might lower battlefield mortality. The Brits on the other hand typically made some assumptions based on the evidence they had and got on with it. Higher levels of advanced interventions during evacuation as exemplified by the British MERT system in Afghanistan seem to be associated with better outcomes but the evidence is not high quality.
I am the first to acknowledge that randomised trials are inherently difficult when people are shooting at you. Most prehospital care is not quite that stressful but there remain significant barriers to conducting really high quality prehospital research. Taking the evidence you have and getting on with it is a practical approach but it is not a substitute for meticulously designed and executed high quality studies. Such studies often disprove the evidence from lower level studies. We all bemoan the lack of good data in prehospital care and recognise the requirement for better research.
When you’re only left with signals
The Head Injury Retrieval Trial taken in this context really is an opportunity wasted. There is a strong signal in the as-treated analysis of unconscious trauma patients that there is a significant difference in mortality associated with physician prehospital care. The Intention to treat (ITT) analyses was not significant however.
The potential reasons for the lack of difference in the Intention to Treat group is really best appreciated by looking at the difference in intervention rates in Table 2. Both treatment teams (additional physician or paramedic only) could intubate cold so we only report the rate of drug assisted intubation. This was by far the most common physician only intervention, and the one we have been suspecting to make the most difference to head injured patients. When you look at the rates receiving this intervention it was 10-14% in the paramedic only group due to the local ambulance service sending their own physician teams in a good percentage of patients, compared with 49-58% in the treatment group. If this really is the intervention that is going to make the difference, our chances of demonstrating that difference are not great unless the treatment effect is absolutely massive.
When the system you study changes
The Ambulance Service in NSW decided two and half years into the trial that they considered physician treatment to already have sufficient evidence to make it the standard of care. They partially replicated the trial case identification system to enhance identification of patients that they believed would benefit from dispatch of a physician (there’s more detail in the HIRT protocol paper).
This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. In the OPALS study of prehospital advanced life support in Canada in 2004 the original study design was a randomised trial (Callaham). It was however done as a cohort study owing to the belief of paramedics that it was unethical to withhold ALS despite absence of proof of its efficacy. We bemoan the lack of evidence but belief in the efficacy of established models of care make gathering high quality evidence impossible in many EMS systems. NSW has proved to be no exception.
Where are we then?
So where does this leave Sydney? I think a quote from Prof Belinda Gabbe best sums up the situation. Prof Gabbe is a trauma researcher from Monash who has published much on the Victorian trauma system and was brought in as an external expert to review the HIRT outcome data during a recent review of the EMS helicopter system in New South Wales. Her comment was:
“As shown by the HIRT study, physician staffed retrieval teams are now an established component of standard care in the Sydney prehospital system. The opportunity to answer the key hypothesis posed by the study in this setting has therefore been lost and recommendation of another trial is not justified. Future trials of HIRT type schemes will therefore need to focus on other settings such as other Australian jurisdictions, where physician staffed retrieval teams are currently not a component of standard care”.
The only jurisdiction in Australia with enough patients to make such a study viable that does not already use physicians routinely is Victoria. Such a study would be particularly interesting as the recent randomised trial of paramedic RSI from that state found absolutely no difference in mortality, the area where the HIRT trial indicates there well may be a difference. Any potential trial funder would want some certainty that history would not repeat itself in the standard care arm however.
In NSW though, the question of whether physician care makes a difference to patient outcome is now a moot point. It is now the standard of care – HIRT has definitively demonstrated this if nothing else. All we can do now is determine the best way of providing that care. We have more to publish from the data set that provides significant insights into this question so watch this space.
In case you missed them above:
Callaham M. Evidence in Support of a Back-to-Basics Approach in Out-of-Hospital Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation vs “Advanced” Treatment. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(2):205-206. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.6590. [that one isn’t open access]