Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland air ambulance 'necessity, not luxury' says medic

An air ambulance transfers an injured woman to hospital during the 2015 North West 200. Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption An air ambulance came from Sligo to transfer an injured spectator to hospital in Belfast during the 2015 North West 200 races in County Antrim

An emergency medical helicopter is a necessity, not a luxury, an intensive care consultant has said.

Dr John Hinds of Craigavon Area Hospital in County Armagh said the service is "essential" and should be introduced in Northern Ireland.

He said it "would be a game changer in terms of trauma provision".

A woman who was critically injured after she was hit by a motorbike at a racing event last month said she also supports calls for the service.

Dr Hinds added that "every other UK trauma network has an air ambulance providing enhanced care at the scene, and safe transfer to a trauma centre".

The health minister is involved in discussions on the issue.

The absence of an emergency helicopter was highlighted during the G8 summit in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in 2013, when organisers had to rent an air ambulance from Scotland.

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Media captionDr John Hinds said it "would be a game changer in terms of trauma provision"

During last month's North West 200 motorbike races in County Antrim, a helicopter was dispatched from County Sligo to attend a serious accident.

Spectator Violet McAfee was transferred to hospital in Belfast when she was struck by a motorcycle that had left the road.

She said she was "shocked" to find out the helicopter was not based in Northern Ireland.

"I certainly do feel it is something that the province here does need, because nobody knows when an accident is going to happen," Ms McAfee said.

"It's really an important thing that we must have here."

'Cost effective'

When it comes to an air ambulance service, Northern Ireland has had a problematic experience with little agreement about how it could be delivered across the region.

Dr Hinds, a lecturer in trauma science, said he finds it "hugely frustrating to return home to what is essentially a third world system.

"Those of us who have worked in countries which have an air ambulance can see how game changing it is for victims of major trauma.

"It's not a luxury, it is essential and it would be cost effective.

"One of the problems is that Northern Ireland is a rural population, so the cut-off criteria for most major trauma networks is access within 45 minutes.

"Air ambulance cover in the rest of the UK is roughly one air ambulance to 1.5m of population, so we are well over that in Northern Ireland.

"If we consider cross-border work, that would go up to two million of population," he added.

"In countries that have an established service, the mortality rate from trauma has been cut from anything up to 40%.

"Some of the air ambulance services in England have reported cost savings up to £20m in the care of trauma patients."

Grounded

TUV MLA Jim Allister is due to meet the health minister later to make the case for an air ambulance.

He said: "It's really about saving lives, because there are statistics which Dr Hinds has demonstrated that show that in countries where you have an efficient air ambulance service, those who suffer severe trauma have at least at 25% better chance of survival."

There have been previous calls for an air ambulance for Northern Ireland and controversy about the setting up of such a service.

A number of years ago, a charity raised about £700,000 towards an air ambulance.

But in 2009, a BBC investigation revealed that 90% of the money collected by the Ireland Air Ambulance Charity in its first year went on wages and overheads.

The charity was later wound up.

The then health minister Michael McGimpsey said Irish Air Ambulance never had an agreement in place to provide the service and he said there was no need for a dedicated air ambulance.

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