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Patients become too heavy for medical emergency helicopters

Published time: July 17, 2013 18:58
Reuters / Ilya Naymushin

Reuters / Ilya Naymushin

An estimated 5,000 US patients requiring medical treatment are denied helicopter transport each year because they are too heavy or large to fit in an aircraft.

To accommodate the nation’s super-sized patients, emergency medical providers are now being forced to purchase larger helicopters and fixed-wing planes. More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, which has caused a dilemma for air transport providers.

“It’s an issue for sure,” Craig Yale, vice president of corporate development for Air Methods, told NBC. “We can get to a scene and find that the patient is too heavy to be able to go.”

Emergency medical providers use helicopters in dire instances where a patient needs the fastest possible transportation to survive. But if a patient is too large or heavy to fit in the helicopter, they may not be able to receive the urgent care they need in a fast enough manner.

About 5,000 obese patients are denied helicopter transportation each year in the US. In some cases, their weight or size exceeds the aircraft’s capacity, but in other cases, these patients simply cannot fit through the doors. Even if heavy patients fit into the aircraft, their weight can sometimes prevent a helicopter from lifting off the ground.

Transporting a patient that exceeds a helicopter’s weight capacity can also pose a dangerous risk to all on board: a helicopter that crashed in New York’s East River in October 2011 went down because it was over capacity by 250 pounds.

“It is definitely becoming more of a problem,” Dr. David Thomson, a professor of emergency medicine at East Carolina University, told NBC.  “The whole spectrum of ER services, from flying to ground services, gets affected when you’ve got these huge folks.”

The ability for a helicopter to lift heavy patients also depends on the air density, and obese patients are more likely to weigh down the aircraft when the air becomes thinner during the summer months.

“If you have a really hot, humid day, we can’t lift nearly as much as on a day when it’s cold and crisp,” Thomson said.

This spring, a 460-pound patient from Texas, a 444-pound patient from Arizona, and a 225-pount patient from Arizona were all too large to fit in a responding helicopter. The patients were suffering from breathing problems, severe abscesses and a flesh-eating bacterial infection, respectively. After emergency responders were unable to fit them in a helicopter, the patients had to travel by ambulance and their chances of survival were severely hindered.

Some emergency helicopters are unable to carry patients weighing more than 250 pounds, and others are able to accommodate patients weighing up to 650 pounds. As a result, emergency medical providers have been forced to expand their fleets and purchase larger air ambulances, which can be costly.

The Duke University Medical Center has recently purchased two large helicopters at the cost of $10 million each. And unless two-thirds of all Americans shed their extra weight, medical care providers will need to drop the extra cash to accommodate the growing girths.


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