Helicopter EMS (HEMS): The Benefits?

I’m going to kick off 4 days of information on helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS).

The use of medical helicopters has grown at an astonishing rate in the 10+ years since Medicare got involved with payment for this service. All high level trauma centers have helicopter landing facilities, and many either own or are a part owner in at least one helicopter EMS service (HEMS).

Here’s a state by state breakdown of the number of medical helicopters:

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It’s gotten to the point where the indication for summoning a HEMS service seems to be the presence of a patient to ride on it! 

A lot of papers have been published in the past 20 years trying to justify the benefits of using these services. As is the usually case when a lot of papers are published on one subject, most of them are not very good. Many studies have been performed to try to justify their use, and most were not successful. The following items have been scrutinized:

  • Interfacility transfers
  • Trauma
  • Pediatric transfers
  • Pediatric trauma
  • Burns
  • OB
  • Neonatal
  • Rural trauma

Most of these papers found little, if any, benefit. The ones that did tended to be published by institutions that owned these services, raising the significant question of bias. The one thing that was always significantly different was the cost. HEMS costs at least 5-10 times more than ground EMS transport.

So the benefits are not very clear. What about the risks? I’ll talk about those in my next post.

Click here to view the interactive state map of medical helicopters. See where your state is with respect to number of ships and services, and how busy they are.

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  • Mike Abernethy

    The interactive map you are using was put together 2009. At that time there were about 675 medical helicopters than as represented on the map. Today we have 1050 medical helicopters in the USA ( about 55% more). If you want a fairly accurate picture of numbers and location, go to http://www.adamsairmed.org/public_site.html
    Also a huge shift in the number of programs run by hospitals vs programs run by large for profit, corporations ( non-medical)