Risks of air ambulance outweigh benefits


Yampa Valley Medical Center's decision not to re-establish its air ambulance service was the right one.

The hospital's board of directors made the decision at a meeting last month and announced it Thursday. Hospital officials said the decision was driven by economics.

We agree.

Although it is important to have access to medical flights out of the Yampa Valley, history has shown that those flights do not have to originate with a local service. And given the crash of the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crash that killed three people in January, it's hard to blame the hospital's board for its reluctance to re-establish such a service. The pain of that tragedy lingers long after the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which occurred near Rawlins, Wyo. The air ambulance was en route to Rawlins to pick up a patient for transfer to Casper, Wyo., when it crashed near the Rawlins airport. The pilot and two hospital employees assigned to the air ambulance died. One crewmember survived.

It was the second crash in less than two years for the air ambulance. After the crash, Bob and Cindy Maddox, whose Mountain Flight Service operated the air ambulance on a contractual basis with the hospital, decided they could no longer shoulder the responsibility of the air ambulance.

Without the Maddoxes and Mountain Flight Service, the hospital would have to start anew with an air ambulance service. The hospital's board of directors recognized that such a move would be cost prohibitive.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the January crash, and a final report is expected any day detailing findings of the investigation. NTSB Regional Director David Bowling noted two things that were unique about the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance: the contractual arrangement between the hospital and Mountain Flight Service and the use of the air ambulance to transport patients for reasons other than emergency care.

Bowling also said the Rawlins crash is one that could drive specific recommendations for change in the medical flights industry, which has endured a number of fatal crashes in the previous year.

Such unresolved questions underscore the hospital board's decision. At this juncture, the risks -- financial and otherwise -- of operating an air ambulance service appear to outweigh the benefits. We would suggest that the money previously invested in the air ambulance might better be used trying to recruit a full-time cardiologist and oncologist. Doing so could reduce some need for air ambulance services.

Even when the air ambulance was in use, that service was supplemented with medical flights from the Front Range and Grand Junction. Since the crash, out-of-town services have been used without incident.

True, a locally based air ambulance provided us with a certain security that, in the event of an emergency, we had the quickest possible transportation to medical care. But we have learned that the service can be provided efficiently in other ways. Given recent events, moving ahead without a locally based air ambulance was the right decision.


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