Helicopters better at saving lives than ambulances, study finds

Severely injured patients are more likely to survive if they are transported to a hospital by helicopter than by ambulance, new Johns Hopkins research has found.

The use of  helicopters has been scrutinized because they may crash and end up killing people. They are also expensive to operate. But the study found that patients transported by helicopter are 16 percent more likely to survive than those who travel by land. 

"We know helicopter trips are costly and carry some risks, but this research shows they do save lives,"  study senior author Dr. Adil Haider, an associate professor of surgery, anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement. "It also tells us that we need to sharpen our ability to identify trauma patients who need the helicopter most to ensure that we deploy the helicopter for people who really will benefit from its use."

 The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers looked at records from more than 223,000 patients 16 years of age and older using the National Trauma Data Bank from 2007 to 2009. The patients examined had injuries that were at least moderately severe injuries and had to be taken to trauma centers. The 161,500 patients who were transported by ambulance to nearly 62,000 transported by helicopter.

Those transported by helicopter had better survival rates even when the data was adjusted for factors such as age and the severity and type of injury. One in 65 patients brought to a Level I trauma center by helicopter would die if ground transportation was the only option, the study found.

Because helicopter transport can be costly, Haider said more needs to be done to determine which patients should be transported because they are more likely to survive or their injuries are severe enough. Sometimes patients injuries turn out not to be severe enough for a transport.

The average cost of a helicopter transport in Maryland, where the system is state-run, is $5,000 per patient.

Helicopters may be better than ambulances because they are faster and often have more experienced staff, Haider said.