Lead author Dr. M. Kit Delgado, an instructor in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University Medical Center, said uninsured patients might have to pay the entire cost of the helicopter.
Delgado and colleagues determined how often emergency medical helicopters need to help save the lives of seriously injured people to be considered cost-effective compared with ground ambulances. There were an estimated 44,700 U.S. helicopter transports from injury scenes to level-1 and level-2 trauma centers in 2010, with an average cost of about $6,500 per transport. The total annual cost is around $290 million.
Emergency helicopter transport is most needed in remote, rural areas where transport by ground can take longer than by air, but sparser populations and fewer runs make it difficult to recoup the overhead cost of helicopter services, Delgado said.
The study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, found if an additional 1.6 percent of seriously injured patients survive after being transported by helicopter from the scene of injury to a level-1 or level-2 trauma center, then such transport should be considered cost-effective.
"Of course, this study only applies to situations in which both ground and helicopter transport to a trauma center are feasible," Delgado added. "In situations where the only alternative is being taken by ground to a local non-trauma-center hospital or being flown to a trauma center, then clearly we want any patient with a suspicion of a serious injury flown to that trauma center."