For stroke victims, the lag between onset and treatment is critical. For some types of stroke, 2 million neurons are destroyed every minute blood is blocked from the brain, according to a study led by UCLA released in 2013.
To save those vital minutes for stroke victims, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School, in partnership with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, rolled out the country’s first mobile stroke unit in February 2014.
In July 2014, the Cleveland Clinic introduced its own mobile stroke unit in Cleveland, Ohio. These innovative advances are helping healthcare professionals reach and assess stroke victims significantly faster.
What are Mobile Stroke Units?
From the outside, a mobile stroke unit looks like a regular ambulance, but it is actually fully equipped with expert staff, special equipment and the proper medications needed to diagnose and treat strokes. The unit contains a portable CT scanner that can image a patient’s brain to detect the type of stroke. The CT scans wirelessly transmit to the hospital neuroradiologists, who determine if the patient is having a stroke and whether it is ischemic or hemorrhagic.
While the patient is on their way to the hospital, stroke neurologists use telemedicine technology to access the patient’s symptoms. The on-board mobile lab tests blood samples and if it is determined the patient is suffering from an ischemic stroke — which account for 87% of all strokes — the team can initiate an intravenous tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) in an attempt to break up the clot.
Impact of Mobile Stroke Units
Mobile stroke units can be the difference between life and death or a greater recovery. Researchers in Cleveland found that on average, patients received a CT scan more than 20 minutes faster when treated by mobile stroke units. They also found a major decrease in treatment time — a total of 64 minutes, versus 104 minutes in the emergency room.
First Patient Success Story
In June 2014, the Houston mobile stroke unit successfully transported and helped to save the life of its first patient — a 30-year-old woman with stroke-like symptoms when her friend called 911.
When the mobile stroke unit team arrived at the woman’s home, the medical team assessed her condition and transported her into the waiting ambulance and immediately did a CT scan. A few minutes later, doctors were able to confirm the patient was suffering from a basilar artery occlusion, a rare, often fatal type of stroke where a blood clot blocks an artery that provides blood to the brain stem.
The team used this information to start providing tPA treatment before the ambulance left the patient’s home, which was critical as timing was a key element in saving her life.
In these cases, the earlier a team can intervene, the better the outcome.
Ultimately, the woman was treated roughly 78 minutes after initially feeling ill, which happens in less than 1% of all stroke cases. Just days after suffering from her stroke, the patient was moving the left side of her body where the stroke occurred, speaking clearly and walking on her own.
Mobile stroke units have the potential to produce a profoundly positive impact by shaving minutes between onset and treatment.
It is generally assumed in the medical community that the faster a team can get to a stroke victim, the better their outlook. The UCLA researchers found that every 15 minutes saved meant a 4% reduction in a patient’s risk of death and 4% increase in the likelihood a patient will be able to walk when discharged from the hospital.