Helicopter option might have saved actress's life

Monday, March 23, 2009

It took nearly six hours to get actress Natasha Richardson to a major hospital, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported, a delay that probably killed her.

It didn't help that the extent of her injuries wasn't recognized for two hours, until it was perhaps too late, when she began showing symptoms of traumatic brain injury and a second 911 call went out.

Paramedics worked on the actress for half an hour before taking her to a hospital 40 minutes away, and it wasn't until four hours after that call that she arrived at a specialized hospital in Montreal.

The tragedy raised questions about the lack of a medical helicopter system in Quebec.

"Our system isn't set up for traumas and doesn't match what's available in other Canadian cities, let alone in the States," Tarek Razek, director of trauma services for the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal told the Associated Press.

Although they might have saved Natasha Richardson, helicopters are hard to justify on a purely cost-benefit basis. Costing $1.5 million to $5.7 million to purchase and perhaps a million dollars a year to operate, a medical helicopter is a luxury beyond the reach of tight public health budgets like those that fund health care in that part of Canada.

According to several studies, only a small number of patients actually benefit from expensive helicopter transport -- many are discharged directly from the emergency department or are released from the hospital within two days.

And, many helicopter services operate in urban areas where most people are only minutes from trauma centers anyway, rather than in rural areas like ours, where the fast transportation really can make a difference.

Local paramedic service, the ones usually first on the scene, have made giant strides in recent years, further negating the need for fast helicopter transport.

Still, the lack of a helicopter option that could save your life or that of a loved one, seems unacceptable.

As the United States moves toward the universal health care the Obama administration has promised, look for more conflicts between individual health care choice and medical decisions made with an eye on the bottom line.

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