NEW ORLEANS -- The Black Elk Energy rig explosion and fire on Friday raises an important question for healthcare in the New Orleans area: why don’t any local hospitals have a burn unit?
Four rig workers, who were severely burned, had to be stabilized at West Jefferson Medical Center and then transported to Baton Rouge General Medical Center for treatment.
“Many hospitals used to have burn units. In 1999, West Jefferson closed their burn unit, and if you speak to hospital administrators and staff, what happens is a burn unit is a very specialized unit. It requires special equipment, specialized training and specialized staff,” said state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, who serves as chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
Burn units are expensive to operate. Louisiana has three of them: One in Baton Rouge, one in Lafayette and the largest at the LSU Hospital in Shreveport. West Jeff wouldn't comment on why they closed theirs.
“There is really no reason for us to try and duplicate and try and be in competition with them and reduce the number of patients that they are seeing in those other centers,” said Dr. Norman McSwain, director of the Spirit of Charity Trauma Center.
McSwain said patient care isn't compromised by having the closest unit in Baton Rouge, because there's a 48- to 72-hour critical window for treating the burns. He said University only transports 10 to 20 severe burn patients a year.
In 2009, 15 people arrived at the LSU Interim Hospital and had to be transported to Baton Rouge. In 2010, there were also 15 people transported. In 2011, 17 people were transported. Through the third quarter of 2012, 10 people have been transported.
That doesn't include the other hospitals in the metro area.
“You have to have enough experience to stay good at it. You can't do one or two burns a month or a year and be experienced at it and do a good job of it,” McSwain said.
The head of the non-profit board tasked with overseeing the new university hospital complex said there are no plans to put a burn unit in the new facility.
About the decision, LSU Health Sciences Spokesman Marvin McGraw said, "Burn units are very expensive to operate. We looked at the services needed in the region and determined it was not critical to the new University Medical Center. The burn center at the Baton Rouge General Hospital is sufficient to handle the needs of the region."
More than a decade ago, the director of the Orleans Parish Medical Society, Dr. Brobson Lutz, wrote an article for New Orleans Magazine making the argument for why New Orleans needs its own burn unit. He said many of the same arguments still apply today, including the distance it would take for loved ones to travel, and the small number of beds in the Baton Rouge unit.
In fact, Friday, Baton Rouge General said they didn’t know if they could handle all four burn victims. All four ended up getting transported and treated in Baton Rouge.