Do Emergency Helicopters Save Lives?

Emergency Medical Service Helicopters are shown to increase chances of survival

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) While emergency helicopter flights may boost your chance of survival over ambulance transportation, they are an expensive and limited resource. Researchers are asking, do they actually save lives?

With modern medical technology the number of trauma survivors has increased across the board. A new study suggests that helicopters do, in fact, save more lives.

For every 65 patients that are transported to a trauma center by helicopter one extra life could be saved.

"If you witness a serious accident call 9-1-1 first."

"We looked at the sickest patients with the most severe injuries and applied sophisticated statistical analyses to the largest aggregation of trauma data in the world," says Samuel M. Galvagno Jr., DO, PhD, from University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"We were careful at every step to balance all the potential other factors that could explain any benefit of the helicopter. After all that, the survival advantage of helicopters remained.”

The researchers used patient information listed in the 2007-2009 American College of Surgeons National Trauma Data Bank, a database containing more than 1.8 million patient records.

The team found those who were over 15 years old who were critically injured and taken to trauma centers by helicopter or ambulance. Over 200,000 patients met this criteria (72 percent used ground transportation and 28 percent used helicopter).

About 13 percent of helicopter patients did not survive compared to about 11 percent who were transported by ground. However, when the team corrected for other factors, like injury severity, age, vital signs, travel time, and distance to trauma center, they found a different story.

Depending on the trauma center, there was between a 15 and 16 percent increase in survival rate for those in helicopters. This means that for approximately every 65 extra patients transported by helicopter, 1 more would survive.

The researchers want to do continued research to explore the positive benefits of emergency helicopter services.

"The benefits of the helicopter, we believe, are related to multiple factors. Certainly time and crew expertise play a role. Beyond that, we're not sure. More study is warranted," adds Galvagno.

However, it is not as simple as comparing ground transport to air transport, says flight nurse and Helicopter Rescue Specialist Chris Postiglione. “Rarely do helicopters respond to events as the primary medical unit. At some point the ground crews make the decision to fly these patients. Emergency helicopters should not be viewed independently of the surrounding trauma system. In order to be successful air medical providers rely on the ground EMS, Fire, and Law Enforcement personnel as well as the receiving hospital for the entire continuum of care.”

The study was published in the April edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association and was funded by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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Review Date: 
April 17, 2012
Last Updated:
April 18, 2012