Medical Helicopters: Worth the Cost, Risk?

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Doctors Debate Medical Helicopters' Usefulness

Some doctors say the cost is a necessary expense in some areas in which appropriate treatment centers are few and far between.

"The greater Houston area is served by just two level 1 trauma centers for over 5 million people," says Dr. James J. McCarthy, medical director of the emergency center at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.

Yet Dr. Jack Sava, director of trauma at Medstar Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C., cautions, "Helicopters are not medical treatments, and they are not magic. They're just a fast, expensive way to get to the hospital."

Location appears to play a big part in how useful these helicopters are. In rural areas, where a few medical centers may be scattered over large areas, helicopters can be a real timesaver. But in urban areas where landing a helicopter can be difficult and distances are short, ambulances are often the faster way to go.

"It is generally not recognized by the public that a helicopter is not always faster than an ambulance," says Dr. Amy C. Sisley of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. "Helicopters are often unable to land at the scene of the injury and must land at a distance in a parking lot or other open space."

"I would call a helicopter only if the ground transport time exceeds 60 minutes because less than that and the helicopter isn't saving that much time," Rabrich says. "The helicopters time advantage dissipates rapidly as the distance to the trauma center decreases."

Many experts think the skill level of the crew and superior equipment on helicopters, rather than speed, is what really makes a difference in care. It is not unusual for a helicopter to have a trauma nurse or even a physician on board, something that an ambulance almost never contains. In Smothers case he was able to receive medications for his injuries that the ambulance on scene could not provide him.

"In every instance the capabilities typically available on a helicopter will always be the same -- or greater -- than those available in a ground ambulance," explains Dr. Michael A. West, professor of surgery at the University of California San Francisco, referring to this study an "apples to oranges comparison." He says that instead of helicopters, more emphasis should be placed on packing ambulances with better equipment and enhancing paramedic training.

Still, for every argument against the use of these choppers there is a patient like Smothers, who believes that his life was saved by one. Smothers says he is forever grateful for the emergency medical personnel on the helicopter that day.

"I think of them as second to none, really extraordinary," Smothers says.

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