Military technology is aiding the flight of hospital helicopters.
Overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, three hospitals this year will use Department of Defense satellites to guide their helicopters through bad weather to critically ill patients.
This summer, 586-bed Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., became the first hospital to employ the military's Global Positioning System. With the system, Erlanger's helicopter has picked up 14 patients who otherwise might have been transported in ambulances. Many of those patients might not have survived the lengthy ambulance trip, physicians said.
The FAA last week began tests of the system at 496-bed University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. It will start similar tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on Nov. 7.
The Global Positioning System is a network of 24 satellites circling 11,000 miles above the Earth. Developed to help the United States fight battles around the world, it was opened to private-sector use early this year.
Its signals can be used to help pilot airplanes, navigate oil tankers, place lobster pots, carry out geological surveys or track fleets of vehicles. Widespread use could push annual sales of products interpreting GPS signals to $5 billion by the next century from $600 million this year, the U.S. Department of Commerce said.
The advantages of the GPS include more precise charting, more direct routes and fewer flights canceled because of bad weather. "The biggest thing is it just saves lives," said Dan Norman, director of the Erlanger helicopter program.
How it works.When "instrument flight regulations" take effect in bad weather, a pilot charts the aircraft's course by picking up radio signals from a known location and calculating its distance away. Helicopters typically must fly to an airport-the sites of most ground-based radio systems-before flying to a hospital heliport to pick up or deliver patients. Often helicopters land at the airport, and an ambulance transports the patient. Such delays can cost lives.
The GPS makes it possible for helicopters to fly under instrument flight regulations directly from one hospital heliport to another, Mr. Norman said.
The experiences of the three hospitals will form the basis of "terminal instrument procedures," which set criteria for helicopter flight paths. Although the procedures are expected by spring, it could be many months before other hospitals adopt the GPS.
The FAA must map new approaches for each hospital that wants to use the GPS, said John McCarthy, a training officer at Corporate Jets, a Pittsburgh-based company that manages the University of Wisconsin helicopter program and 15 other air ambulance programs.
High costs involved.A GPS receiver costs relatively little-$12,000 to $15,000-but the development of landing and takeoff procedures could require hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the hospital's location, helicopter operators said.
"The most important thing is to look at the advantage in delivering critically ill patients to a higher level of care," Mr. McCarthy said. "The use of GPS will increase transport volume, that's a given. It will enhance aviation safety. But it isn't a given that at every hospital we operate a program, we'd like one of these approaches."
Using the GPS at the University of Wisconsin should help Corporate Jets determine how valuable it will be to other hospitals, Mr. McCarthy said. Dallas-based OmniFlight, which runs the Mayo program and 30 others, got involved for the same reasons.
Many of its clients, particularly those developing regional networks, are interested in the GPS, said Don Klick, vice president of marketing at OmniFlight. A number of regional networks intend to designate particular facilities as the only providers of some advanced medical services. That means they'll need to fly patients between hospitals more often, Mr. Klick said. Some analysts expect the demand for interhospital transports to more than double the value of the air medical industry in five years to $1 billion (May 30, p. 32).
Added flights.One OmniFlight client, 570-bed Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., estimates that it might complete 100 more flights each year with the GPS. Its helicopter makes more than 700 flights a year already but doesn't fly in bad weather, said Connie Schneider, Loyola's air medical director.
She asked the FAA to consider Loyola as a potential site if it expands its tests to high-traffic areas. Maywood is near Chicago and busy O'Hare International Airport.
Ambulances now travel an hour to pick up patients at 82-bed Morris (Ill.) Hospital. A helicopter, however, makes the same trip in 20 minutes. "For critical patients, the out-of-hospital time is so much (less)," Ms. Schneider said.