'Flying ICUs': Medical helicopters provide advanced care for rural patients

Medical helicopters so well-equipped that one hospital leader calls them "flying intensive care units" are helping people in the rural upper Midwest get emergency medical care that otherwise would be out of reach, the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune reported.

"There's some debate as to the value of having a helicopter system in New York City or Detroit or Chicago," Mark Monte, M.D., chief of trauma surgery at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, told the newspaper. "But we cover a large expanse of open territory. So to have a helicopter which can go out and reach a great distance and bring a patient back is a great advantage."

Minneapolis-based Life Link III provides a nonprofit helicopter service for nine hospital systems in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, according to the article. Life Link has helicopter bases in six small communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Patients are "really getting the highest level of care" for traumatic injuries, heart attacks and strokes "almost from the moment the crew arrives on scene," Monte said.

The need for viable alternatives to locally based healthcare in small communities is becoming more critical, with recent reports that nearly 13 percent of U.S. rural hospitals are at risk of closing. Those closures put access of care for 700,000 Medicare patients alone at risk, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

Telemedicine can help rural residents self-manage chronic diseases, but for rural patients who need higher levels of care, nurse-staffed emergency ambulances like those that Intermountain Healthcare launched last year can provide a ground-based alternative to emergency helicopter flights. Hospital ambulances also can be used for patients too sick for treatment at rural hospitals, but not sick enough to warrant air transport.

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