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LA to debut rapid response pilot program to help stroke patients

UCLA's mobile stroke unit is equipped with a mobile CT scanner to diagnose and treat stroke patients more quickly in the field.
Jenny Lower/KPCC
UCLA's mobile stroke unit is equipped with a mobile CT scanner to diagnose and treat stroke patients in the field.

A pilot program designed to provide stroke patients with emergency care more quickly will kick off next month in Westwood, San Pedro and Long Beach.

The project will use a modified ambulance equipped with a mobile CT scanner to diagnose and start treating stroke patients while they're still en route to the hospital. Experts say it's vitally important to begin medication within the crucial first hour after an individual has a stroke.

"It can make the difference [between] whether a dad spends the rest of his years with his family or in a nursing facility," says Dr. May Nour, medical director of the Arline and Henry Gluck Mobile Stroke Rescue Program at UCLA Health, which is overseeing the pilot.

Research has shown that for every minute the brain is deprived of oxygen during a stroke, about two million neurons die, which can lead to permanent incapacitation.

"Our focus now is on delivering better care, faster care, earlier care, because that’s what really saves brain cells," says Nour.

The pilot project is the first of its kind on the west coast. It’s part of a national study run by the Texas Medical Center to collect data on whether such programs can improve outcomes for stroke patients while remaining cost-effective. UCLA's mobile stroke unit cost about $1 million to build, according to the university.

The program was originally privately-funded and scheduled to operate for 18 months in the Westwood area. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors recently approved a motion by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Mark Ridley-Thomas to provide about $1.5 million in additional funding to extend the program another year and expand it into San Pedro and Long Beach.

If the study is successful, it could help make mobile stroke units the standard of care and persuade the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and private payers to offer reimbursement for their services, Nour says.

Each day, nearly 50 people in L.A. County suffer a stroke. It's the second-biggest cause of death in the county. 

Hahn says she became interested in introducing a mobile stroke unit in L.A. County after hearing about a similar program in Cleveland. Her father, the late former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was instrumental in establishing the county's paramedic program. He suffered a stroke in his later years that paralyzed his left side and confined him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.

Commenting on the pilot project, Hahn says, "We’re hoping that if people can be reached sooner and diagnosed, and then treated appropriately at the right hospital, that they would be able to walk out of the hospital."