IMPROVED SAFETY: Medical Helicopter Services

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Hospitals around the country have operating agreements with flight companies who provide the pilot and maintenance staff for their medical helicopter services.
The investigation into the accident of a hospital helicopter in northern Iowa that killed the nurse, pilot and paramedic on board is only in the beginning stages, but questions of what went wrong are abound.

That helicopter was based out of Mercy Medical Center-North in Mason City. Mercy has an operating agreement with Texas based Med-Trans.

Nine states currently require accreditation of medical transport systems.  Iowa is not one of them, but Eileen Frazer, Executive Director of the Commission of Medical Transport Systems says a lack of accreditation doesn`t mean a program is unsafe.

“Safe programs can have accidents too,” she told Channel 13.

Frazer says there are some benefits to accreditation, like a full audit which covers things from pilot training, qualifications, maintenance, and communications.

The number of medical transport accidents in the last few years has dropped dramatically from twelve in 2010 to two in 2012.  Frazer believes the decline is due to higher standards.

“There have been advances in not only pilot training but medical crew coordination, a lot of equipment advances, NVG’s are very common today, when they weren’t just a few years ago. There`s a lot of advancements that have been done,” she said.

Med-Trans, the company servicing the Mercy Air-Med helicopter says all standard and regular maintenance checks were completed prior to its final flight.  A spokesperson also says the chopper was equipped with night vision and satellite tracking systems. 

The cause of the Mercy North helicopter crash will likely be under investigation for months, Frazer says up to 75 to 80-percent of all medical transport accidents are caused by pilot error.

Iowa has had two other medical helicopter crashes in history. Iowa Methodist’s Life Flight crashed in Webster City in 1980. The second crash occurred in 1998 while a helicopter was on its way to pick up a patient in Spencer.