Helicopters might inhibit health care
A recent study led by a professor at the University of Cincinnati reported that helicopter emergency medical services often delay treatment for patients.
The study, led by Dr. Jason McMullan, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at UC, found that, in 2007, the majority of ST elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) — a type of heart attack caused by a sudden and total blockage of a coronary artery — patients transported to a hospital by a helicopter emergency medical service did not receive treatment within a recommended time limit.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiologists recommends 30 minutes to open the artery using drugs and 90 minutes using a stent — a tiny tube placed into an artery to open it.
"The goal of treating patients suffering heart attacks is to open a clogged cardiac artery as soon as possible," McMullan said.
The study reviewed 179 patients flown by UC Health's helicopter emergency service from 16 referring hospitals to six area hospitals and found only 3 percent of patients who needed stents received treatment within 90 minutes, while more than half received treatment after two hours.
"Our results suggest that, when inter-hospital transfers are required, significant delays are introduced — even when a helicopter is used," McMullan said.
The study also revealed that fewer than half of the patients treated with artery-opening drugs were medicated in the 30-minute goal.
Delays in the process of activating a helicopter EMS could contribute to the delayed treatment, according to the study.
"The take-home point of our findings is certainly not that helicopter EMS doesn't help STEMI heart attack patients; on the contrary, HEMS undoubtedly saves many lives in getting suburban and rural STEMI patients to cardiac catheterization labs for [stents] as rapidly as possible," said William Hinckley, medical director for UC's Air Care and co-author of the report. "Rather, the point is that calling the helicopter is not like saying, ‘Beam me up, Scotty' on ‘Star Trek.' "
Helicopter EMS is fast but not instantaneous, Hinckley said.
The study recommends that hospitals consider ways to reduce transfer time by possibly creating a system that would allow for a physician to call for helicopter transport and cardiologist approval with one phone call.