Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota is planning to build a top-level pediatric trauma center, with the help of a $17.5 million gift from UnitedHealth Group Inc.

It is by far the largest grant the hospital has ever received and is part of a $150 million fundraising drive by Children's for its new building and accompanying programs.

"It has the potential to transform trauma care for Children's and also allow us to launch major efforts at trauma prevention," said Children's Chief Executive Dr. Alan Goldbloom.

The $17.5 million grant is also UnitedHealth's largest single gift so far under its United Minnesota program, which aims to hand out $100 million over 10 years.

Children's expansion comes at a time when competition for kids' health care is intensifying. Fairview is building a new $275 million children's hospital, the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, set to open in March. Meanwhile, two other Minnesota facilities recently received Level 1 pediatric trauma certification, the same level that Children's will seek.

Highest level of care

A Level 1 trauma center offers the highest level of trauma care, with specialist surgeons available around the clock. These centers must admit a certain volume of patients and conduct research. Lower-level trauma centers evaluate and stabilize patients and transfer the most serious cases to higher-level hospitals.

There are four Level 1 trauma centers in Minnesota: Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Regions Hospital in St. Paul, North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Of these, Regions and Mayo received Level 1 pediatric certification last year, meaning they have specialists available to handle the youngest patients, including fetuses injured in utero.

Studies have shown that the most severely injured children do better at pediatric centers, said Dr. Dean Potter, associate pediatric medical trauma director at Mayo, which admits between 220 and 250 injured children each year.

"Hopefully we can all work well together and hopefully improve the care of all injured children in Minnesota," Potter said.

Dr. Michael McGonigal, director of trauma services at Regions, said increasing the number of centers will stretch the limited number of pediatric surgical specialists in the Twin Cities, who already treat patients at multiple hospitals.

"There are a certain number of children injured every year," McGonigal said. "Just because there are other centers, it doesn't mean more children get hurt."

McGonigal says he sees "some redistribution of patients," which may make it a challenge for each center to maintain enough patient volume to stay Level 1. A Level 1 pediatric trauma center must admit at least 200 injured children a year younger than 15.

A crowded field

Whether the new University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital will also strive for Level 1 certification is still in question.

"We are actively engaged in discussions about that right now," spokesman Ryan Davenport said. "We are certainly going to open in March with a full-service pediatric emergency department."

So how many is too many? "That's a question for the health care system to decide, rather than individual hospitals," said Sarah Youngerman, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Medical Foundation, the university's fundraising arm.

Children's is working on attaining its Level 1 certification from the American College of Surgeons by early 2013, Goldbloom said. Last year, Children's saw nearly 600 pediatric trauma cases at its hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The new trauma center will be in the new emergency room of Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. While other Level 1 programs exist, Goldbloom emphasized that Children's will be the first one in a children's hospital.

UnitedHealth tends to give to education and health-related causes, said Dr. Richard Migliori, chief medical officer at UnitedHealth Group.

"This clearly fits well with our framework, to bring into our area an asset that has not existed before," Migliori said.

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434