Mobile Stroke Unit saves lives, service needs insurance support

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INDIANAPOLIS — Close to 800,000 people suffer a stroke in this country every year.  The key to successfully treating stroke is speed. The quicker a stroke patient gets a blood thinner or clot busting drug, the less damage to the brain and hopefully, fewer disabilities.

Since 2018, Marion County residents have had access to a Mobile Stroke Unit, an ambulance with the technology of a hospital.  But the MSU is a very expensive vehicle. The cost can be anywhere from $600,000 to a million dollars. Operating it is costly as well, running into thousands of dollars a day.

The Mobile Stroke Unit available to Marion County residents features a CT scan, a small pharmacy stocked with clot busting drugs, telemedicine capabilities and a lab. It’s staffed by a paramedic, emergency medical technician, a nurse and sometimes a stroke physician.

Dr. Jason Mackey, a stroke neurologist with IU Health says initial results from the study of the mobile stroke unit shows patients who are initially treated by the MSU receive that treatment 35 minutes faster than if they get to a traditional emergency room. Close to 100 patients have used the MSU over the past three years. Many, he claims, have benefitted.

“The thing about this study we just participated in, it showed that an extra 11 percent of people were disability free,” says Dr. Mackey, “and an extra 27 percent had fewer disabilities than they would have, if they had been treated in a standard way. We can start medicine right then or there in someone’s driveway, place of work or just out in the community. That is the idea. And what we found is that it saves 30 to 35 minutes.”

Dr. Mackey says each minute a stroke goes untreated two trillion neurons can be affected. 

“The name of the game,” says Dr. Mackey, “is get people back to their homes and families and back to their work. We want to try and keep them out of nursing homes.”

Right now, patients who are treated with the MSU don’t have to cover the cost. Insurance providers, Dr. Mackey hopes, will see the efficacy once they see the data being collected.

Right now, the MSU has been funded through philanthropy. There are 20 such MSU’s across the country. A traditional ambulance charge can range in price depending on insurance coverage, upwards of $500 to $1,000 dollars. 

If a patient suspects they may be having a stroke, the symptoms include facial drooping, a weak arm, and slurred speech, they should call 911 and do their best to describe those symptoms to the dispatch operator. The mobile stroke unit can respond with medicine and technology that can save a life.

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