Dec. 4 (UPI) -- When it comes to stroke treatment, minutes can make a significant difference.
A study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests specially equipped ambulances could shave as much as 30 minutes off the time between a person first experiencing the symptoms of a stroke and when they begin treatment.
Key to saving time from symptoms to treatment involves the use of Mobile Stroke Units, or MSUs, which are vehicles equipped to provide stroke treatment before reaching a hospital.
The new study supports previous trials comparing the outcomes of patients picked up in MSUs with those transported in standard ambulances, researchers say.
"This study provides further evidence suggesting a potential role for mobile stroke units in dense urban areas to increase our ability to treat stroke patients faster," study co-author Lee H. Schwamm, director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in a statement. "This study joins a large body of efforts to improve how we swiftly recognize, triage, transport and treat patients with stroke, which is the ultimate goal."
Ischemic stroke -- the most common type of stroke, which occurs when a clot blocks a blood vessel to the brain -- is often treated with the clot-busting drug altepase, which should be started within three to five hours of the onset of symptoms.
MSUs offer the possibility of diagnosis and the start of altepase before arrival at the hospital, significantly speeding up treatment.
For the study, researchers analyzed medical records for 66 patients with symptoms of stroke taken to the hospital by an MSU, comparing them with 19 suspected stroke patients taken by a traditional ambulance in Manhattan, New York City's most densely populated borough, between October 2016 and September 2017.
Neurologists on the MSUs diagnosed 29 patients with ischemic stroke and started alteplase immediately. Nine of the 19 patients transported by a traditional ambulance were diagnosed with ischemic stroke and received the drug at the hospital -- 30 minutes later than those transported by MSU.
"When it comes to stroke treatment, 30 minutes can be the difference between making a full recovery from a stroke and living independently, or becoming disabled and needing help with the activities of daily living," said lead author Matthew E. Fink, neurologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "The faster patients receive alteplase, the more likely they are to recover quickly and with fewer complications."
The study used NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital's MSUs, which were equipped with a portable CT scanner allowing neurologists to evaluate patient for ischemic stroke and, if they make a diagnosis, immediately administer alteplase.
MSUs' ability to expedite stroke treatment has been tested previously in Cleveland from 2014 to 2017, in Houston in 2014, and also in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, with researchers finding they have potential to improve survival and outcome.
"We know that faster treatment equals better outcomes. However, further research is needed to establish if mobile stroke units improve long-term health outcomes and are a cost-effective solution in stroke systems of care for large cities, as they reflect a significant financial investment for cities and EMS agencies," Schwamm said. "While the lack of definitive evidence of benefit and of third-party reimbursement for mobile stroke unit staffing and care are barriers, additional studies are ongoing and will help address these critical issues."