DALLAS - After a life-threatening accident, minutes count and a medical helicopter can save a patient's life.

But, the life-saving image of medical helicopters doesn't always match up with reality. Critics say the helicopters can be overused, waste money and sometimes are even deadly. In the last year, 24 people were killed in 13 medical helicopter crashes.

"There's this image that we have in this country that speed saves lives," said Dr. Bryan Bledsoe, of Midlothian. "Speed is killing our paramedics and EMTs."

Bledsoe's research revealed one in four patients transported by helicopters are released from the hospital within 24 hours.

A growing body of research now questions whether the risk is worth it as medical helicopters can cost up to 10 times more than a ground ambulance

"If the ambulance would just leave and go to the hospital you'll get there faster," Bledsoe said.

The association representing the air medical industry says the growth in helicopter use is connected to its increased effectiveness in treating strokes and heart attacks. Bledsoe said generous Medicare reimbursement rates make medical helicopters profitable to operate.

Bledsoe said according to his latest estimate, and depending on how many are in service on any given day, 19 to 21 helicopters are operating in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. However, when asked how many are actually needed, he replied only five.

Hospitals in Dallas are a frequent destination for medical helicopters, and studies show helicopter patients can be highly profitable for hospitals.

In the last year, Methodist Hospital received 184 patients, Baylor received 780 and Parkland received 1,281.

"Facilities that utilize medical helicopters or receive patients transported by helicopters do so to render the best treatment for the patient," the association representing local hospitals wrote to News 8.

As opposed to the Dallas area, Fort Worth has taken an approach to address some of the growing concerns about medical helicopters.

Dr. John Griswell is the Medical Director for MedStar, which provides dispatch and ambulance service for Forth Worth and 14 other communities.

"When I go to the funerals of those aero-medical personnel, most of whom we know, I would like to know that they were on a call that would've made a difference for this patient," he said. "That's the bottom line."

MedStar has been able to address one of the greatest concerns about medical helicopters, which is who calls them.

Many services market themselves; sometimes they do so directly to customers and even more so to local paramedic services and fire departments. So, in the case of an emergency, a paramedic may call the helicopter service he or she has a relationship with, not necessarily the one that's closest.

That's not the case with MedStar.

"Any helicopter that is dispatched to a scene is dispatched through the MedStar communications center," Griswell said.

By collaborating with helicopter providers, MedStar was able to set up a system where the closest helicopter gets the call not from paramedics on the ground, but from a centralized dispatcher. It's a system Griswell said he believes wouldn't be hard to implement in other communities.

There are future plans for a the North Texas region to dispatch only the closest medical helicopters. But unlike Fort Worth, the Dallas area has no centralized dispatch, so it will only be voluntary.

And Bledsoe said he think it's enough to change the status quo.

"It works now by 'who's your buddy,'" he said.


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