By Dan White
Many stretchers of today are twice as strong as anything from the 1970s. A modern powered stretcher today can weigh almost 140 pounds and lift more than five times its own weight. Selecting a new stretcher is one of the most potentially contentious equipment decisions you can make.
Here are the top six points to consider when making a purchase:
Do a lot of homework long before looking at your first new stretcher. Do you run a high call volume? Are you in a mostly suburban, urban, or rural environment? A department running a lot of EMS in a high-call volume, urbanized environment wants a lightweight stretcher that’s fast. They will also be heavily influenced by department history and culture. One aspect of this I’ve noticed is preferences for H- or X-frame type stretchers.
Once a busy service with a stable workforce gets its hands on an H-frame stretcher, you will have to pry it out of its cold, dead, lifeless fingers. If you try, you better have the facts to back it up. Injuries to staff or patients should be carefully examined. In older eastern cities with tight halls and narrow entrances, a fast and maneuverable lightweight stretcher makes sense. Out west, the buildings are 100 years newer, with wider halls and doors. In these situations, the advantages of a taller X-frame could be far greater than the weight penalty.
The better known X-frame or self-loading stretcher now comes in a variety of brands, price-ranges, and even colors. I believe the biggest advantage of the X-frame is that it’s inherently safer. The highest or “load” position is high enough for roll-in loading. The center of gravity is lower, so particularly on rough terrain they handle better. They are a little less physically demanding, which could be important for your particular workforce. In departments with lower call volumes, PRN, or volunteer staff, that safety catch hook and head end U-bar will translate into fewer patients getting dropped.
Take a careful look at maintenance and service programs and pricing. One of the most important aspects of any stretcher purchase is how you will get it fixed when it breaks. You may have noted I said “when it breaks,” not if. Stretchers are very expensive to ship, and agencies cannot afford to be without even one for long. Only the best-heeled departments can afford to keep numbers of spare stretchers available. This makes timely and regular service paramount. If you have a current provider of regular stretcher maintenance, he or she could prove to be a valuable resource. Tell them you are in the market for a new stretcher and why. They may have valuable experience regarding any potential purchase.
If you don't already have a regular maintenance program for your patient handling equipment, there is no time like the present. Keep in mind the more high-tech the stretcher, the more important regular service will be. These things require regular care just like any other piece of high-technology clinical equipment. A well-documented ongoing maintenance program saves money in the long run. It’s important for you to compare the potential down-time, periodic maintenance, and the as-needed repair costs.
3. Go to a show
Send an emissary to a fire conference, which can be a great place to see all the latest stretchers in one room. Prepare a half dozen pointed questions focused on revealing points of interest. Spending one day at one of these national conferences will instantly bring you up to date on the latest in patient handling technology.
4. Google is your friend
Do a Web search on models of specific interest. With all the new fire-related message boards and online communities, the Internet provides a great opportunity to learn about a lot of stretchers. It's easy to find out which models have had problems in other departments, and which ones have worked out great. The opportunity to learn from others experiences can be an invaluable resource.
5. Take a test drive
Once you have narrowed down to the best type of stretcher for your situation, take it for a test drive. Ask for a loaner to try it out and put it on one unit. Any field evaluation needs to be documented. Develop a very brief questionnaire and have each crew rate the product. If you are comparing stretchers, it is far easier to quantify your impressions with field data. It's also critical to have the support of all your staff when making a transition to a new stretcher. If they don't feel like part of the decision to make the change, you may find them unhappy with it later.
6. Change is easier for some more than others
With any new stretcher change, expect some complaints, but keep a record of them. Should functional problems arise, it makes it easier to provide your maintenance technician a written record. Frankly, as a piece of mission-critical medical and rescue technology, every stretcher should have its own individual file. But with any huge change in equipment, expect a few complaints. Change is just easier for some more than others. The motor mechanics of what we do every day develops into ingrained habits. When you introduce fundamentally new ways of executing basic motor skills, some folks will have a challenge adjusting. This is really very normal, so expect it.
Dan White, EMT-P, is the director of Corporate Planning & Product Development for AllMed®. He has been continuously certified as an emergency paramedic since 1977, and a certified EMT, paramedic, and ACLS instructor since 1981. Dan has designed many emergency medical products since his first one, the White Pulmonary Resuscitator in 1978. His most recent EMS product inventions are the AllMed® AVC Helmet, RapTag Triage System, and the top-selling Ultra-X Coat.