GAO Finds Few Problems in Air Ambulance Industry
Little evidence of "helicopter shopping" or "call jumping" was found in the agency's review. Patients being transported increased 35 percent from 1999 through 2008 as the number of air ambulance helicopters increased 88 percent.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the U.S. helicopter air ambulance industry found few instances where more than one helicopter responded to an accident scene (a practice called "call jumping," according to GAO) or a dispatcher called multiple providers until finally finding one that would respond, even if weather conditions are unfavorable ("helicopter shopping"). Stakeholders cited those practices as safety concerns during a 2009 NTSB hearing about the industry, but GAO's review from December 2009 to September 2010 turned up only two instances of call jumping and no helicopter shopping incidents in 464 reports submitted during a 15-year period.
However, the analysts said their numbers are conservative because their data source is FAA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, which is voluntary and may be unknown to some air ambulance crews.
The review, performed at the request of the two congressional transportation committees, indicates the number of patients transported by helicopter air ambulances increased from 200,000 to 270,000 (35 percent) from 1999 through 2008, while the number of helicopters decided to air ambulance flights rose from 360 to 677 (88 percent). As recently as June 2010, however, FAA reported 840 helicopter air ambulances as in service.
The report says the Federal Interagency Committee on Emergency Medical Services is developing guidelines for the emergency transport of trauma victims from a scene, in response to an NTSB recommendation that it develop national guidelines. FAA also has been promising a proposed rule for some time that would address minimum acceptable weather conditions for flying, the use of risk management practices, and additional training requirements, according to GAO. This review did not attempt to determine whether air ambulance transport results in improved survival for trauma victims.