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Technology helps Edmonton doctors quickly assess and treat burns

Edmonton doctors have been using an LDI machine in the University of Alberta Hospital burn treatment unit for the past year, and they say it’s making a big difference for patient outcomes, but there’s a need for second machine to treat and help even more patients.

“Most burn treatment centres don’t have a laser doppler infusion scanner so we very privileged to have one,” said Dr. Joshua Wong, a burn and reconstruction surgeon at the hospital.

Wong said the machine helps determine the blood flow to a burn. They’re able to diagnosis within seconds how deep the burn is, how bad it is and how quickly it will heal. Instead of waiting sometimes weeks to see what could happen, it can determine right away whether a patient will need surgery or if the burn will heal on its own.

“If a patient needs surgery, then it won’t delay their treatment,” Wong said.  “On the flip side, if it can tell us there’s a good chance that the wound will heal without surgery, than it certainly saves them a lot of pain.”

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“In the old days, we would go on clinical assessment alone, but most surgeons who are experienced in assessing burn wounds are only about 60 to 70 per cent accurate in determining the true depth and how long it would take to heal,” said Wong.

“We’re (now) able to get upwards of 90 to 92 per cent accuracy in terms of how long it would take for a skin wound to heal from burns.”

In the past, surgeons would also cut until they found blood flow in the operating room. The scanner helps save healthy tissue that may have been cut away before.

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The Edmonton Firefighter Burn Treatment Society helped fundraise for the machine in 2023.

“When they come to us with projects like this, it’s really important for us to be able to fund them,” said Owen Chatwin, Edmonton Firefighter Burn Treatment Society member. “Anytime you can get the leading edge technology in the hands of the best doctors out there, it’s going to benefit people are burned.”

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The problem is the burn unit is located on the third floor of the U of A Hospital and the emergency department for both adults and children is located on the first and the scanner can’t be moved between floors. A second one would allow faster access to the technology.

Former burn patient, Spencer Beach, is helping the burn treatment society with its fundraising efforts.

“I just have a huge passion in trying to make the next person’s journey easier.”

Beach was given a five per cent chance of survival after a chemical ignited at his worksite in 2003. In less than 20 seconds, he received third and fourth degree burns to 90 per cent of his body.

He was taken to the University of Alberta Hospital where he underwent treatment, including an experimental procedure, where a doctor out of the United States grew pieces of skin from a healthy sample taken from his foot.

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“Every six weeks they would send me skin about the size of a piece of paper,” he said.

It cut his expected time in hospital and rehabilitation down from three years to 14 months, “which is still a really long time,” he clarified.

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He knows firsthand how the advancements in technology at the U of A help burn victims all over the province.

This technology has come a long way from how it was done when he was first injured.

“You don’t just get a burn,” he said. “The main part is going to be a third- or fourth-degree burn, but as it gets to the edges, it gets the second-degree and first-degree burn.”

“The doctors can tell visually somewhat where the burn degrees stop and start, but it’s not precise and they cannot tell how deep the burns go.”

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The scanner can save tissue that would have been lost before, he said.

“When the doctors go and initially debride all that dead tissue, they don’t have to guess anymore.”

He said it won’t just reduce time in the operating room, but will help reduce trauma for patients.

“We need to keep pushing and making this burn unit the best in Canada,” he said.

The University of Alberta Hospital-Firefighters Burn Treatment Unit services burn patients from all over the Edmonton area and northern Alberta, northern B.C., Saskatchewan and the North West Territories.

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