Q: If I have a stroke, should I seek treatment at a primary stroke center?

A: Depending on your symptoms, emergency personnel will choose the most appropriate hospital; it may not be the closest. A primary stroke center is an acute-care hospital that meets certain criteria for delivering stroke care and adheres to practice guidelines designed to improve outcomes for patients with warning signs or symptoms of stroke.

If you or a loved one may be having a stroke, call 911 immediately and ask for transport to the nearest primary stroke center. Here's why:

The Joint Commission, the nation's largest health-care evaluation body, collaborated with the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association to launch the primary stroke center certification program in 2003 to improve stroke care. Certified centers have a core stroke team that establishes education programs, collects outcomes data, and arranges activities that teach hospital staff about providing the best stroke care possible.

Hospitals seeking certification must present at least four months of stroke data. Primary stroke center certification raises the quality of care to patients and shows the hospital's commitment.

Once first responders have assessed the patient, they will contact the most appropriate facility, informing them to expect a possible stroke patient. The medical staff can then prepare for your arrival, thus saving time.

For maps of stroke center locations and travel times, see www.strokemaps.org (click on state and map options).

George Hobbib is director of emergency medicine for Nazareth Hospital, which is a certified primary stroke center.