Gainesville health system seeking ‘Level 1′ trauma center status

Georgia lost one of just a handful of health care facilities able to treat the most serious injuries when Atlanta Medical Center closed on Nov. 1

A health system in Georgia is working to become a “Level 1″ trauma center, months after Atlanta Medical Center’s closure eliminated one of the state’s few hospitals certified to handle the most severe injuries.

Officials with Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville say they have officially applied for the verification, which could make them the fifth location in the state with the title. Level 1 trauma centers are the gold standard for care, and are costly endeavors. The verification means a facility can provide care for every aspect of the most complex traumatic injuries and medical emergencies, from prevention to rehab, without the need to transfer patients elsewhere.

Grady Memorial Hospital became the only remaining Level 1 facility in Atlanta following Wellstar’s decision to close Atlanta Medical Center in downtown on Nov. 1, which had also held the designation. Northeast Georgia Medical Center is currently a “Level 2″ trauma center.

Dr. Matthew Vassy, the trauma medical director for the Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said that the Level 1 verification will enable the health system to recruit more trauma sub-specialists, so that patients with complex injuries can be entirely treated in-house. Vassy said the hopes to expand its ophthalmology and complex facial reconstructive services, among other things.

“Over the long term, what we’ll see is that this [change] will facilitate the hospital system’s growth,” he said.

The American College of Surgeons is the national association that verifies whether a facility has services and staff needed to qualify as a trauma center. Vassy said the American College of Surgeons Verification Review Committee visits once every three years to evaluate hospital care. In Georgia, a member of the Department of Public Health works with ACS to evaluate the health system and make sure it meets the Level 1 standards. Vassey predicted it could be sometime this spring before a decision is made.

A spokesperson for the American College of Surgeons said they could not provide any further information about facilities in Georgia that “may or may not” be in the verification process.

In all, there are four Level 1 trauma centers in the state: Augusta University Medical Center in Augusta, Atrium Health Navicent in Macon, Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, and Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah.

Wellstar’s Atlanta Medical Center made national headlines when the health care system announced it was shuttering operations this fall. The hospital’s closure had the greatest impact on lower-income and Black patients it served and left Grady Memorial Hospital as the sole remaining Level 1 hospital for metro Atlanta. Wellstar said its decision to close AMC was necessary because it was losing too much money.

Vassy said the application to make the Northeast Georgia Medical Center a Level 1 trauma center has been years in the making. The title could help the health system to grow and expand services over the next five to 15 years, and enable them to attract talented young surgeons, he said.

“This will be a recruiting tool for young surgeons, and I think that will have an impact on our reach,” he said.