Risk of using medical helicopters evident in recent crashes

The use of medical helicopters is under scrutiny in Oklahoma after one company had its accreditation suspended following a series of crashes. A recent study found both benefits and risks associated with medical helicopters.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Modified: July 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm •  Published: July 14, 2013
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For the gravely injured, a ride on a medical helicopter could mean the difference between life and death.

But it's an expensive trip, with an average ride costing about $20,000.

In an era of rising medical costs, the use of medical helicopters already was controversial before a series of fatal crashes added attention, culminating in one of the state's four medical helicopter companies having its accreditation suspended last month.

EagleMed, a Kansas-based company that operates in Oklahoma, continues to fly patients even though the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems suspended the company's accreditation after a June 11 crash near the Choctaw Nation Health Care Center in Talihina. A patient died in the crash, and three crew members were injured.

Deadly crashes

According to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report, the aircraft's rotor blade disk struck a metal light pole, causing the pilot to lose control.

The accident was the third deadly crash the company has had since 2010.

In February, another EagleMed helicopter crashed on St. Ann Drive in Oklahoma City, narrowly missing nearby St. Ann Retirement Center and St. Ann Nursing Home. The pilot and a flight nurse died in that crash, and flight paramedic Billy Wynne was critically injured.

Wynne, 31, suffered burns on 60 to 65 percent of his body, a broken ankle, a broken leg, several broken ribs, a crushed spine, a broken sternum, and a broken arm, according to a Facebook page dedicated to his recovery.

Wynne was taken to Parkland Hospital in Dallas and then to Zale Lipshy University Hospital in Dallas for treatment, surgery and recovery. Recently he was transferred back to Oklahoma City, just in time for the birth of his second child. He is being treated at Integris Baptist Medical Center.

Another EagleMed helicopter crashed in 2010 in a pasture near Kingfisher. That crash killed two crew members and severely injured a third. A final NTSB report on the crash found the pilot was pretending to hunt coyotes when the helicopter hit a tree and plummeted to the ground.

A spokesman for the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems said the pattern of crashes is alarming. The group will conduct its own investigation of the crash, and EagleMed will have to go through a supplemental accreditation process to win back its approval.

Accreditation is not required to operate in Oklahoma, and EagleMed is still flying patients.

EagleMed spokesman Robbie Copeland said the company is working with National Transportation Safety Board officials and the Federal Aviation Administration as they continue investigating the June and February crashes.

“If there is something we can do differently, we certainly will as soon as we have knowledge of the cause,” Copeland said. “All I can tell you is the NTSB report is out for the accident in July 2010. As far as the other two, we won't know until the final reports are out from the NTSB.”

About helicopter use

Most hospitals accept patients flown by helicopter the same as those brought by an ambulance.

The companies that operate the helicopters are privately owned and run, just like most ambulance companies. The hospitals have landing pads available to accept patients, but they do not operate helicopters themselves, said Brooke Cayot, spokeswoman for Integris Baptist Medical Center.

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