The best way to minimize death and disability in most patients having an acute ischemic stroke is rapid thrombolysis by infusion of tissue plasminogen activator. Mechanical clot removal – thrombectomy – has recently been shown even better, but it’s applicable to just a fraction of these stroke patients, and even for them thrombolysis remains, for the time being, the recommended first step, with thrombectomy following soon after.
The good news is that more eligible U.S. stroke patients than ever before get this effective treatment. As I reported recently from the International Stroke Conference, as of mid-2016, 68% of U.S. acute ischemic stroke patients treated at about 2,000 of the largest and most focused U.S. stroke hospitals received thrombolytic treatment within 60 minutes of their hospital arrival. That’s up from 30% in late 2009. Hooray! The sad news is that many eligible stroke patients seen at these hospitals don’t get treated this way. Simple math puts that figure at 32%. In other words, last year, nearly a third of U.S. stroke patients who should have received quick thrombolysis didn’t, even though they were taken to the country’s top stroke hospitals.
How do I know that more universal rapid thrombolysis is possible? The 2016 numbers reported from the Get With the Guidelineshospitals showed that roughly 2% of the 788 hospitals included in this analysis treated 90% or more of their eligible stroke patients with thrombolysis within an hour. That’s about 16 hospitals. Another 8%, upward of 60 hospitals, treated 80%-89% of their eligible stroke patients within this window. So a high level of thrombolysis treatment is possible. It just isn’t being done everywhere. About 20% of the hospitals in the program treated 40% or fewer of eligible patients they saw within the 60-minute window.
I have no idea why some hospitals do so well while others don’t, despite being in the GWTG-Stroke program that promotes excellence in stroke care delivery. In the most recent iteration of the GWTG–Strokeprogram, phase II, the organization promoted 11 steps for hospitals to take to optimize rapid delivery of thrombolysis. The obvious inference is that some hospitals are doing all 11 steps very well and consistently, and many others aren’t. Underperforming hospitals owe it to their patients to do a much better job; the top-performing hospitals show it’s possible.
I have heard a lot recently at meetings about how research has established that a range of medical treatments, if used diligently by patients as directed, will substantially improve and prolong their life. Patient compliance then becomes a big issue, and so now I’m hearing more about new approaches to improve compliance. But what about hospital compliance?
Treating acute ischemic stroke as well as possible is different from most disorders – it’s not about patient compliance. It’s about the ambulance that picks up the patient and the hospital where the patient gets taken. The success or failure of the acute treatment that the roughly 700,000 annual U.S. acute ischemic stroke patients receive lies entirely in the hands of the hospital staff. Fewer than 10% of U.S. stroke hospitals offer the vast majority of these patients the best care currently available. Many others don’t do as well, and a huge fraction remain woefully slow, even though everyone knows the pathway to doing better. Underperforming hospitals owe it to patients to up their game, and they need to start doing it now.