Washington Hospital Center held a news conference yesterday to warn that the growing use of helicopters to transport accident victims to hospitals could lead to dangers from a sky filled with costly medical rescue aircraft, some with insufficiently trained staff.
Dr. Howard Champion, director of shock-trauma services at the Hospital Center, said he is concerned that hospitals might begin "the equivalent of a strategic arms race with helicopters" because of the attraction of adding the aircraft to their hospital inventory.
"We're concerned that it not be used for public relations," he said.
Nonetheless, Washington Hospital Center, which receives the majority of air-transferred patients in the metropolitan area, is planning to hire its own helicopter service later this month.
This arrangement will supplement the government helicopters that serve it now and will allow the hospital to use specially trained nurses on the flights. The Hospital Center sees a need for a helicopter that includes trained nurses, rather than just emergency medical technicians, Champion said.
"We are in the process of instituting a contract with an operator at National Airport," he said.
The hospital currently is served by helicopters flown by the U.S. Park Service and the military.
The federal agencies do not charge for the service but put other responsibilities first, such as protecting dignitaries for the U.S. Secret Service.
Champion said the contract is necessary because the Park Service ends its service each night at midnight and the military helicopters take "up to an hour" to respond.
The Maryland State Police provide helicopter service, and Fairfax police recently purchased two new helicopters that will begin service later this summer.
"We don't want to compete with park police, which are doing an excellent job, or state police in Maryland," Champion said.
"But we don't have the needed level of care on the helicopters, particularly for long hospital-to-hospital transfers."
Glenn Pfadenhauer, spokesman for the Fairfax police, said the department's helicopters would primarily be used for traffic control. But he said the helicopters would always include an officer certified as an emergency medical technician.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, to which Champion contributed, showed that using helicopters to rescue accident victims cut death rates by 52 percent at the University of California Medical Center in San Diego.
Helicopters were first used for medical evacuation in Korea, then in Vietnam, and are now used widely throughout the United States.
Just before the arrival yesterday of a helicopter bearing a mock victim for a demonstration of the Hospital Center's Med-Star unit, an ambulance rolled in carrying a real victim. Hospital employes quickly arranged screens around the patient and the news conference continued while medics worked on the injured man.