A retrospective review of the transfer of critically ill children to tertiary care in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Candice Royal, N H McKerrow


Background. Obtaining care for an acutely ill child in specialised paediatric services relies on referral from lower-level facilities. In South Africa, it is common practice for acutely ill children to be transported far distances by non-specialist teams with limited equipment, knowledge and skills. 

Objectives. To describe the transfer of these children and to determine whether they deteriorate from the time of referral to the time of arrival at a tertiary centre. Furthermore, we sought to identify modifiable factors that might improve outcomes during resuscitation and transfer. 

Methods. The study was a retrospective review of emergency referrals of children aged 1 month - 12 years to Grey’s Hospital paediatric ward or paediatric intensive care unit (PICU), from lower-level facilities in KwaZulu-Natal between January and June 2012. In conjunction with an assessment by the receiving clinician at Grey’s Hospital, Triage Early Warning Signs (TEWS) scores were obtained during telephonic referral and compared with the TEWS score on arrival in order to determine if a deterioration had occurred.

Results. A total of 57 PICU referrals and 79 ward referrals were analysed. The mortality rate prior to transportation was 8.8%. Mean transfer distance was 131 km and mean transfer time 9 hours. Advanced life support teams undertook transportation in 76.7% of PICU and 25% of ward transfers and few adverse events were reported in transfer logs. However, 31.5% of PICU and 11.3% of ward referrals required immediate resuscitation on arrival. When the TEWS scoring system was applied 78.5% of PICU and 30.4% of ward referrals fell into the ‘very urgent’ and ‘emergency’ categories. 

Conclusion. Pretransport and in-transit care failed to stabilise children and this may reflect lack of skill of attending healthcare workers, transport delays or illness progression. Interventions to improve resuscitation and transfer are needed, and the use of retrieval teams should be investigated.

Authors' affiliations

Candice Royal, University of Kwa-Zulu NatalDepartment of Paediatrics and Child Health, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

N H McKerrow, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban; and Department of Health, KwaZulu-Natal

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Referral; PICU; transfer teams

Cite this article

South African Journal of Child Health 2015;9(4):112-118. DOI:10.7196/SAJCH.2015.v9i4.913

Article History

Date submitted: 2014-12-10
Date published: 2015-11-06

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