Overutilization of helicopter transport in the minimally burned—a healthcare system problem that should be corrected

Jordan Roman, William Shank, Joseph Demirjian, Andrew Tang, Gary A. Vercruysse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Eighty-eight percent of all patients burned in North America suffer burns of less than 20% TBSA. These patients may need care at a burn center, but barring any inhalation injury or polytrauma, these patients do not require helicopter transport (HEMS). We sought to identify a cohort of patients suffering smaller burns who do not benefit from HEMS to establish significant health care system savings. A 5-year retrospective analysis of data collected from our trauma registry was performed. Patients were separated into two groups: HEMS and ground transport (EMS). A subanalysis was performed between those with smaller burns (<20% TBSA and no ICU/ OR requirement). ED disposition, hospital length of stay, distance transported, and cost was analyzed. Of 616 burn patients presenting to our center, 13% were transported by HEMS, 46% by ambulance, and 61% by private vehicle. Of those transported via HEMS, 38% had been evaluated and treated at an outside hospital before transfer. Patients transported via HEMS had larger burns (13 vs 9 %TBSA; P = .002) and deeper burns (P < .001), longer hospital stays (P = .003), higher ICU admission rates (P < .001), and mortality rates (P = .003) compared with those transported by EMS. Transport distance was a mean 5.5 times greater (88 vs 16 mi) in the HEMS group (P < .001). Within this cohort, 53% of patients transported via HEMS suffered smaller burns, compared with 73% transported by EMS. A subanalysis of the smaller burns cohort showed increased distances of transport via HEMS (91 vs 18 mi; P < .001) and increased rates of admission from the ED in the EMS group (93% vs 68% by HEMS; P = .005), yet no difference in length of stay, or rates of early discharge, defined as <24-hour hospital stay. Fully 1/4 of those transported via HEMS with smaller burns were discharged from the ED after burn consultation, debridement, and dressing. Mortality in both was nil. Average cost per helicopter transport was US$29K. Accurate triage and burn center consultation before scene transport or hospital transfer could help identify patients not benefiting from HEMS yet safely transferrable by ground, or better served by early clinic follow-up, which would reduce cost without compromising care in this cohort. Annual patient savings approximating US$444K could be multiplied were non-HEMS transport universally adopted for smaller burns.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-22
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Burn Care and Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Rehabilitation


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