Patient helicopter transport expensive, not always better

Contrary to popular belief, transporting patients between hospitals by helicopter isn't always the best option, according to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in a study published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Transporting a patient by helicopter can cost up to $25,000, while ground transport costs between $800 and $2,000, according to a press release yesterday. Researchers looked at 167 neurosurgical patients transferred to an emergency department to see if transporting them by helicopter, versus ground ambulances, improved patient outcomes. They found that for 60 percent of the patients, driving time was less than an hour, although it was not clear whether helicopter transport would have been better.

The researchers, however, noted that 63 percent of the transferred patients didn't need immediate attention and could have been stabilized at the original hospital and then transferred by ground transportation.

"In an area of rising healthcare costs and expenditure scrutiny, it is necessary to make evidence-based decisions to optimize patient care in an efficient way," said Dr. Brian Walcott of Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the press release. "This study provides preliminary data that brings into question the efficacy of helicopter transport for interfacility hospital transfer--a practice that is costly and has been increasingly utilized."

As hospitals continue to look in all areas of the organization to cut costs, some may want to reevaluate the patient benefits of transportation. For example, researchers recommend telemedicine for neurosurgical evaluation as one way to improve air triage.

"In a time when there is growing interest in health care cost containment, practitioners must exercise discretion in the selection of patients for air ambulance transport-particularly when it may not bear influence on clinical outcome," the study states.

To learn more:
- read the press release
- see the study abstract

Related Articles:
OIG okays hospital transport services
Feds target ambulette fraud
Influence of mHealth comparable to cars and transportation