What happens when an accident occurs and you require advanced medical intervention? What is the fastest way to get from the accident scene to a hospital? This is when first responders depend on Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS).

Although Vail, Rita Ranch, and Corona are close to the highway system, by car it still takes about 30 minutes to travel the 25 miles to the closest Level I center which is Banner/UMC Hospital. Helicopters can reduce the transportation time considerably.

But for serious accidents, what criteria determines the mode of transportation? It is a rapid decision-making process where lots of factors are considered. “The teams I have been associated with evaluate the impact of patient outcomes along with long-term stability. Then the need for helicopter transfer is determined,” said Laura Westly, committee chair for the Association of Critical Care Transport (ACCT). “It is all about clinical stability of the patient. This means getting the patient to the required level of care along with the sub-specialists that are required.”

“We are a big time saver for time sensitive accidents. Time is tissue, time is blood loss,” said Greg Featherston. A former flight paramedic, Greg is now the marketing manager for Arizona Lifeline, one of the helicopter emergency service providers that serve southern Arizona. “We arrive in the field ready to provide critical care to patients.” Greg added this has improved patient outcomes after accidents.

“The golden hour is still 60 minutes for trauma patients. Stroke and heart attack patients have their own time associated treatment goals for critical care. Rural areas benefit from helicopter services because we can fly straight from point A to point B,” Greg added.

However, the costs of HEMS can be staggering when compared to ground EMS. According to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, the average patient may be billed “anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 or more depending on the service and distance transported.” Compared to the average ground transportation costs, the Journal listed costs of approximately $800 to $2,000 per occurrence.

In 2009, Betsy Wiley was putting finishing touches on house decorations near the top flight of stairs. “I remember losing my balance and falling backwards, but I don’t remember anything after that,” Betsy said. Laying at the bottom of the stairs, Betsy had a severe concussion, a broken wrist, and was unconscious. Since she had a prior incident with a brain tumor it was quickly decided to fly her to a large hospital that could better care for her. HEMS picked her up and in 26 minutes flew 52 miles where she received the care she needed. Her air ambulance bill was $20,000 for the half-hour flight. Betsy was lucky. Her insurance paid 100% of the bill for this flight. Since then, she has joined a network plan that offers a membership for $65 per year. If she requires air transportation in the future, she will be covered.

Tyler is carried to a waiting helicopter for his urgent flight to the hospital

Last December, 15-year-old Tyler Thomas found himself in a desperate situation. He and his family regularly travel to the Imperial Sand Dunes in southern California. While Tyler was riding his dirt bike on the dunes, his tire got caught in a deep rut and he took a severe tumble. He badly broke his right arm just above his elbow. His parents were nearby and were at Tyler’s side. “Shock came quickly and Tyler mentioned that his entire body was numb and his neck was hurting,” said his mother Alana. Due to the remote area they were in, it took 45 minutes for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officers to arrive.

“Because we were not near any roads, the responding officers determined it was best to call an air ambulance,” said Alana. With Tyler’s condition, a 15-minute drive over bumpy dunes to get to the highway was not very practical. This did not include the additional drive time to arrive at the hospital.

Shortly thereafter, a Careflight helicopter landed and picked Tyler and his mother up from the accident scene. The decision was made to fly Tyler 45 minutes west to Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego so that he could receive the care he needed.

Over 4 months later, Tyler’s family is still waiting for the medical and flight bills to arrive. It is unclear how much they will owe. Due to the amount of outdoor activities they participate in, Tyler’s family elected long ago to join the Air Med Care Network so that these costs were covered. “We were surprised to learn that the helicopter costs may not be covered since Careflight is not part of the network we belonged to,” Alana added. This was surprising to the family, since they thought all events were covered in emergencies.

“Membership is not insurance,” said Bud Reed, membership sales director for Air Med Care Network. “The small fee of $65 per year covers the expenses for an entire household.” However, this only applies if the membership patient flies on their network helicopters. In Tyler’s case, it was an emergency and the first available helicopter was dispatched to the scene, whether it was in or out of their network. “It is difficult in scene incidents for members to request certain helicopters. However, in hospital transfers these requests are more practical since there is time to properly schedule flights,” Bud added.

The cost of emergency helicopter transport can be high, but if time is critical, then it may certainly be the best option.

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