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New study weighs costs, risks, benefit of medical helicopters

Imagine for a moment that a loved one has been critically injured in an accident in a location far away from a hospital. An ambulance rushes to the scene, but the distance back to an emergency room with doctors that can save the victim is several miles. When every second counts, ground transportation may not be fast enough.

That's why medical helicopters have been used to transport patients since just after the Vietnam War. Whether you've been injured in a car accident or seriously hurt in a place that's hard for a motor vehicle to access, the speed and accessibility of a helicopter can mean the difference between life and death. According to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland, helicopter transportation of trauma patients is linked to a 1.5 percent increase in survival rates. That may not seem like much, but put another way, a life will be saved for every 65 patients transported by helicopter.

One downside of medical helicopters is their potential danger. They have a higher ratio of accidents to the number of flight hours than other types of aviation. They're often required to launch and land in inclement weather and crashes have killed everyone on board, including the patient. And in highly congested areas, it can be hard for a helicopter to find a place to land. If medics have to travel on foot a long distance from the landing pad to the patient, the time savings may not be worth it

They can also be very expensive. In Maryland, which has an ideal trauma system design, one flight costs $5,000. In other states the cost is much higher. But in places such as rural areas where trauma centers are few and far between, that cost may be well worth it. A helicopter can travel distances in small fractions of the time it takes an ambulance.

Another advantage of helicopters is the personnel on board. Unlike in ambulances, trauma nurses and even physicians tend to travel in them, which means patients can receive immediate care that could save their lives. For those who are living today because of those few saved minutes, medical helicopters are well worth the cost and risk.

Source: ABC News, "Medical helicopters: Worth the Cost, Risk?" Jessica Noonan, April 17, 2012

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