Switching from helicopter to ground transport between two Texas hospitals cut the time heart attack patients had to wait to have their arteries unblocked by more than half an hour, according to a new study.
"What we showed in our study was by tweaking our system, in this case by changing our mode of transportation from air to ground, we actually took median treatment time from about 121 minutes beforehand to 90 minutes afterward," Dr Timothy Mixon told Reuters Health in a phone call.
"That's about a 30 minute decrease in total treatment time by going by ground," he said. "Although that seems slower, it really was quicker."
Mixon is an interventional cardiologist with Scott and White Healthcare in Temple, Texas. He and co-author Dr Luis Colato wrote the paper that was published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Heart blockage cleared
The change to ground transport resulted in more than 90% of patients being treated within national guideline time of less than 120 minutes, the authors say, versus less than half getting treatment within that two-hour window before.
Read: Heart attack: act quickly
An ST segment elevation myocardial infarction – or STEMI – is usually caused by a total blockage of blood flow to a large portion of the heart, so patients having this kind of heart attack need to get the blockage cleared as soon as possible.
That procedure, known as angioplasty, isn't done at all hospitals.
"Across the country about 60% of patients with this type of heart attack present to hospitals that have the capability of doing angioplasty on a 24/7 basis, but only 25% of the hospitals have that capability" Mixon said.
Flying vs. ambulance
When patients show up at a hospital that doesn't offer emergency angioplasty, they need to be transferred to one that does.
The study looked at 43 patients who were initially diagnosed with STEMI at Darnall Army Community Hospital in Fort Hood, but who needed to be transferred for angioplasty at Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple, about 30 miles away.
The authors compared treatment outcomes and transfer times for 19 STEMI patients who were flown between the two hospitals between 2007 and 2010 with 23 patients who were transported by ground ambulance between 2010 and 2012. One more person was transported by air during the second period.
None of the patients died during the study. But on average, those who were flown between the hospitals had 123 minutes from the time of first medical contact until angioplasty was performed. The patients who were transported by ground ambulance averaged 90 minutes between first medical contact to angioplasty.
This study looked at only one pair of hospitals in Texas, but the need to transfer a patient with a STEMI to a different facility occurs nationwide, Mixon and his co-author point out.
Read: Signs of a heart attack
Preparing patient and helicopter
"Every hospital system is a little different. And 10 miles apart might be prohibitive if you're in downtown Manhattan – while ten miles apart in a more rural area is not a problem at all," Mixon said.
"Whether you go by ground or whether you go by air, a lot of people would naturally assume that air transport would be quicker, but basically our findings were that while yes, helicopters can fly faster than a truck can drive, it takes a lot longer to get a patient prepared and the helicopter prepared, and that time essentially offsets the speed of transport and ends up being slower," Mixon said.
Dr Harlan Krumholz cautioned that a small, single-centre study like this may not be relevant to other places.
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