University of Colorado Health’s mobile stroke unit will be third program in the nation

Stroke specialists have a saying: “time is brain.” That's because every minute that treatment is delayed after a stroke, there is an increased chance of disability or death.

University of Colorado Health is looking to get some of those minutes back with its new mobile stroke treatment unit, set to open later this year. Initially, it'll operate in Aurora, Denver and Colorado Springs.

Once it's running, the unit will be just one of three in the U.S. and the first in the region.

The unit is designed to be like an emergency department on wheels, with teams ready to administer drugs that can help clear blood clots. And the cost for all this-- truck, a CT scan, other equipment-- is about $750,000.

Dr. William Jones, co-director of the stroke program at UC Hospital, says the new unit will be part of a national study to see if the approach treats stroke sufferers faster and more effectively.

“We think that we will be collecting data fairly quickly and if this really does appear as though it’s working, this probably will be a game changer for how we treat acute strokes," said Jones. "Then we’ll have to be looking at, 'do we put other units into service?'”

Right now, stroke victims are picked up an ambulance and brought to the hospital, then undergo a series of tests. With the mobile unit, a stroke victim will get tests and treatment much more quickly, some of which can be performed in the vehicle.

"We know already that the sooner we treat a stroke patient, the more likely they are to do well," said Jones. "This is really a way to get that treatment sooner than we now currently do waiting for people to get to the hospital."

For every minute treatment gets delayed following a stroke, 1.9 million brain cells can die. That increases the likelihood of disability or death, says Jones. For every 10 minutes, that's 20 million brain cells.

Currently, less than 1 percent of patients are treated within an hour of when the first stroke symptoms start. Early data from a mobile stroke pilot program in Houston shows 39 percent of patients were treated with an hour of the first symptoms, says Jones.