Patients with traumatic injuries, such as traumatic brain injury fare better when airlifted by helicopter compared to patients transported by ambulance.
According to a new study, airlifted patients by comparison are 16 percent more likely to survive. Helicopter trips are costly and carry some risks, but this research shows they do save lives.
It is important that professionals sharpen the ability to identify trauma patients who need the helicopter most to ensure that they deploy the helicopter for people who really will benefit from its use.
Big cost, big reward
Medical evacuation helicopters—iconic symbols of rapid, lifesaving medical transport in the United States—operate at a price, in terms of both the financial cost and the risk of rare but potentially tragic crashes, according to the study.
A medical helicopter trip costs thousands of dollars, charged, in most states, to insurance companies and consumers.
But trauma is the leading cause of death and disability among young people around the world; in the United States, more than 50 million people are injured annually. Some 169,000 die of injury each year, and the most seriously injured, whether victims of car crashes or other causes of injury, are regularly transported to trauma centers near and far by helicopter.
Sophisticated analysis techniques were used to examine records from more than 223,000 patients aged 16 and older from the 2007-2009 National Trauma Data Bank. All patients sustained at least moderately severe injuries and were taken to trauma centers. The researchers compared the more than 161,500 patients sent by ambulance to the nearly 62,000 transported by helicopter.
When they adjusted for such factors as injury severity, type of injury, and age of patient, they determined that airlifted patients were 16 percent more likely to survive than similarly injured patients transported by ground.
Among their conclusions was that one in 65 significantly injured patients brought to a Level I trauma center by helicopter would have died if ground transportation had been the only option.
Because no one can yet predict with precision which patients might survive only with a flight, transporting anyone with serious injuries might seem warranted.
But using Maryland’s average cost $5,000 per helicopter transport, $325,000 would have to be spent to transport 65 more patients and save one more life. And Maryland’s cost are much lower than average because it has the only state-run helicopter system in the country.
Paramedics and emergency responders on the scene must make split-second decisions about whether to call a helicopter in. Sometimes, they make the wrong call, and a patient’s injuries turn out to be less severe than originally believed.
But there is good reason for overuse of the helicopter: The possibility of making the mistake of not calling for a helicopter and watching a patient who might have survived die instead.
The advantage of a helicopter flight over an ambulance ride can be both the speed at which the patient gets to the hospital as well as the quality of the emergency medical team aboard. Helicopters tend to carry the most experienced crews.
In some cases, helicopters don’t help, but just increase the risk because of the flight and add costs.
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