Elderly patients with hip fractures may get better care at smaller hospitals, a new study suggests.

Seniors with hip fractures waited longer for surgery and were more likely to be rehospitalized if they were treated at a major trauma center than if they went to a smaller emergency room, researchers found.

Seniors in so-called level 1 trauma centers were also more likely to develop blood clots in their legs, compared to their peers who were treated in settings designed for less serious injuries, the researchers write in Medical Care.

Level 1 trauma centers have the resources to treat very serious injuries, said lead author Dr. David Metcalfe of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"However, because they care for the most complex patients, these hospitals are often very busy. There is therefore a risk that some groups of patients might be disadvantaged or 'lost' in the system," Metcalfe told Reuters Health by email.

For example, patients with multiple injuries or bones breaking through skin may be treated before seniors with hip fractures.

Each year in the U.S. alone, more than 250,000 people aged 65 and older are hospitalized for hip fractures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study team used statewide data from California on 91,401 seniors hospitalized between 2007 and 2011. All were over age 65 and had surgery for hip fractures.

Overall, six percent were treated at a level 1 trauma center, 18 percent at a level 2 trauma center (where very seriously injured patients can be stabilized), and 70 percent in a non-trauma center.

More on this...

On average, patients stayed in the hospital for five days and waited one day for surgery.

Patients in level 1 trauma centers stayed for one day longer than those in the other settings and waited nearly eight hours longer for surgery.

Seniors treated at level 1 centers were 62 percent more likely to be readmitted to the hospital within a month of their surgery than seniors treated in level 2 or non-trauma settings.

Seniors were also 32 percent more likely to develop blood clots in their legs at level 1 centers.

Patients at level 2 trauma centers had the same outcomes as those at non-trauma centers, the authors found.

There was no difference between any of the groups in risk of death, bed sores, or pneumonia, however.

"We now know that it is important to treat patients with hip fractures as quickly as possible," said Metcalfe, noting that older adults who wait too long for treatment may be at risk for bed sores, blood clots, and lung infections.

"The concern is that this delay will lead to increasing length of stay in hospital as well as increased complications for the patients because they spend longer in bed waiting for surgery," said Dr. Chris Gooding, a surgeon at Addenbrookes Hospital, a level 1 trauma center in Cambridge, UK. Gooding was not involved in the study.

"This is an important subject as in developed countries we have an aging population and as a result we are seeing increasing numbers of patients with hip fractures," Gooding told Reuters Health by email.

At the same time, Gooding noted, there are also a growing number of level 1 trauma centers.

"One of the best ways to help these patients is to get their operation done quickly so that they can start walking again and return to their own homes as soon as possible," Metcalfe advised.