Your life in good hands

Image of Kate Curtis

By Nigel Bartlett
Photo: Damien Bennett

Thanks to the work of Associate Professor Kate Curtis, trauma patients in hospitals across Australia are assured of the highest levels of care.

Kate Curtis still remembers the huge buzz she felt during her nursing training in a hospital emergency department. “I liked the adrenalin rush, as well as being able to provide good care to people who were under duress,” she recalls.

It was this that led Curtis, now an Associate Professor at the University’s Sydney Nursing School, to become a researcher whose PhD study has brought about widespread changes in Australian hospitals. It has also seen her being honoured with a highly significant prize – one that recognises work leading to the greatest improvements in the care of severely injured patients over the past 10 years.

Curtis (GradDip CritCare ’97) was presented with the 2011 Frank McDermott Award, named after the man whose own research led to (among other things) the introduction of the zero blood-alcohol limit for learner and probationary drivers. Curtis’s study is just as far-reaching, even though (fortunately) fewer people are likely to know about it. She found that the simple measure of introducing a single case manager for each trauma patient in hospital would dramatically improve the care they received and their recovery.

The 14-month study, carried out at Sydney’s St George Hospital and published in 2006, looked at the effects of assigning a specialist nurse to oversee all trauma cases, rather than the patient being seen by numerous people according to his or her injuries. Before the study, Liverpool Hospital was the only one in Australia to appoint a trauma case manager. St George became the second, enabling Curtis to compare the situation before and after, looking at 1300 patients. The study proved so successful that its findings were adopted into NSW Health policy, and case managers have since been appointed at virtually every Australian hospital offering major trauma services.

Encouraging results

“We found that having a trauma case manager in place saved more than 815 bed days over the 14-month period, and reduced the number of complications patients suffered, such as clots in the legs and pneumonia,” Curtis explains. In addition, there were fewer unplanned admissions to the intensive care unit or an operating suite, and pathology tests were reduced by more than 6600.

Curtis describes receiving her award as a great honour. “It’s nice to know that the work you’ve done has meant something to other people and made a difference,” she says.

She is now finalising a three-year post-doctoral study looking at the cost of trauma care in New South Wales hospitals. It has been jointly funded by a fellowship from the University of Sydney and Sydney Nursing School, with 10 hospitals taking part. One of its findings is that trauma-centre hospitals in New South Wales are likely to be losing out on up to $14 million a year in Government funding. Curtis is now examining how well the State’s trauma system works. “I’m looking at whether it makes a difference which hospital a child involved in a car crash is taken to, for example, and whether that affects the chances of survival,” she says.

It is all meaty stuff, with an emotional element that fuels Curtis’s urge to uncover all of this evidence. “That’s one of the things that drives me to do the research,” she says. “I want the way we look after patients to be the best it can be, and I want it to be evidence-based. I want to make sure that if you’re involved in a traumatic incident, we’re giving you the best opportunities you can have.”