Though potentially costly, transport by helicopter is often key in delivering the "most critical patient to the most appropriate place in the shortest amount of time," said W.G. Brannon, nurse manager of Hendrick Health System's trauma center.
A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to bear that out, determining that severely injured patients were 16 percent more likely to survive if transported by helicopter rather than by ambulance.
The recent study, conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, uses data from more than 223,000 patients from the National Trauma Data Bank, which collects information from more than 900 trauma centers. To Julie Heavrin, public relations manager with Air Evac Lifeteam, which serves Abilene, the results of the study "corroborate what we already knew."
"Air medical transport does save lives, particularly in rural areas," where major trauma centers may be hundreds of miles away, she said. Knowing when to use helicopter transportation is vital, Brannon said.
"Coming from the south end of town to here, you wouldn't use a helicopter," he said. "But when you're dealing with distances in our rural areas, yes, they're very valuable."
Native Air and Air Evac, both privately owned, are the two air ambulance companies that primarily serve Abilene, said Klint Newsom, education coordinator/clinical educator with Abilene Regional Medical Center.
"Right now we have two helicopters within the city limits, and they serve up to a 70-mile radius around Abilene," a distance Newsom said could be covered in 15 to 20 minutes.
Brannon said Cook Children's Health Care System in Fort Worth occasionally provides services, as well.
"If we're transferring to them, they prefer to bring their own crew out to transport the patient," he said. Normally, a helicopter will go on 15 to 20 missions per month, estimated Newsom, who was himself on a helicopter flight team for 15 years.
Heavrin estimated that bases, such as Air Evac's Abilene location, typically "fly one patient a day in or out of the area," depending on need and weather.
"We may fly three patients one day, none the next and weather may prevent us from flying another day," she said.
In general, transport volumes "are increasing slightly" in the areas the company serves, she said. The criteria for who is and isn't transported by helicopter can be vague, Newsom said.
"Normally the physician makes the decision," he said. "But a good rule of thumb is: If life or limb is threatened, then they will go by helicopter."Among the typical crew of a medical helicopter is a registered nurse and a paramedic, each certified in critical care, Newsom said.
"You will not find that on a ground ambulance," he said.
Heavrin said that hospital transfers, which represent more than 60 percent of all flights, are all ordered by physicians. "For pre-hospital calls, generally a paramedic decides whether to call a helicopter based on knowledge of the patient condition, medical care required and drive versus flight time to the closest appropriate hospital capable of meeting the needs of the patient," she said.
A trauma patient out in the county may be tagged by emergency medical services personnel for a "scene flight," meaning the helicopter comes to get the patient.
"If we have a heart attack or stroke patient out in the county, the EMS can initiate a scene flight for those, as well," he said. "Just like a trauma patient, who have a 'golden hour' to receive care, heart attack and stroke patients are also under a time window." Texas has a number of regional burn centers, including one in Lubbock and one in Dallas, Hendrick's Brannon said, and such patients are also often transported via helicopter because of a need for speed. Newsom said some companies have membership programs for air transport.
"Basically for a household of three or four, you can buy a membership for about $60 a year," he said. "If you are transported by that helicopter service, they will bill your insurance, and whatever they can't recoup from insurance, they will basically write that off. It's an excellent resource because so many people are worried about the cost."
It takes $2,500, roughly "just to start (a helicop-ter)," Newsom noted. Charges for flights nationwide generally range from $18,000 to $22,000, depending on factors such as distance and the care provided, Heavrin said.