It is no easy task to manage costs in a health care setting. From the smallest hospital in the smallest Oregon town to the largest Portland medical center, there is always a tension between the cost of care and the quality of care. And, over the years, research has shown that the most expensive care is not always the best care.

A new study has contributed a little knowledge to the debate. The researchers looked at patients with serious injuries from car accidents who were taken to trauma centers by ambulance or helicopter. They then compared the outcomes based on the transportation mode.

The raw data told an unexpected story: Patients taken by ambulance had a better chance of survival. When they factored in the patients’ age, injuries and vital signs, helicopters came out on top.

The difference is just 1 or 2 percent, but the results will help the researchers frame their follow-up questions. If, for example, they account for the distance traveled, is one method of transportation more beneficial than the other? One trauma specialist commented that he would opt for an ambulance if the trauma center were no more than 30 minutes away.

There may also be different equipment or different training for personnel. The turning point, the decisive factor that increases a patient’s chance of survival may not be speed. Helicopter is a costly option, but researchers are building the case that the cost is justified by the improved outcomes.

As with just about everything else, costs differ from state to state and even within a state. One trauma professional said that, based on his location and resources, an emergency helicopter transport costs around $5,000. All told, though, that translates — again, in his metro — to a $325,000 price tag for each life saved.

So, the question remains, for now: Is that a steep price to pay for a 1 or 2 percent increase in the patient’s chances of survival?

Source:, “Trauma patients taken by chopper may fare better,” Andrew M. Seaman, April 17, 2012