Emergency medical services utilizing helicopters are commonly available in most of the developed countries of the world. Generally these services are called “Air Ambulance” or “HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service)” in English. Here, in Japan, we call them “Doctor Helicopters” to emphasize the fact the doctors are onboard and that they fly to the patients to provide treatment as soon as possible. This naming has been favorably accepted as comprehensible to foreigners as well.
The basic requirements for a Doctor Helicopter are: to use a dedicated helicopter with necessary medical devices and medicines onboard; to be on stand-by in the premise of a hospital; to be able to take off with the doctor and nurse onboard within several minutes of receiving a call. The Doctor Helicopter will then land at the emergency spot to provide treatment on site and transport the patient to an appropriate medical facility according to the patient’s needs.
Therefore, transportation of the patient is not the only mission of a Doctor Helicopter. The most important role of the service is to dispatch the medical team (doctors and nurses) to the emergency spot as soon as possible.
This ensures early onset of treatment, which may result in a higher survival potential of the patient or a shorter period to heal. According to a research conducted by the HEM-Net, Doctor Helicopters have raised patient survival rate by nearly 30 percent compared to conventional emergency transportation by ground ambulance. The rate of patients who healed completely and went back to work rose by 1.5 times.
Doctor Helicopters can realize high life-saving effects as seen above, but have yet to be fully deployed throughout Japan. One of the reasons to this is their expensive running costs (about 200 million yen annually). Of course, these expenses will not be borne by the individual patients, but by the Japanese Government and municipalities operating Doctor Helicopters.
Still, the size of the funding required to operate Doctor Helicopter services has been a barrier to the dissemination of this service. Recently, however, special tax allocation grants have been made available for the operation of Doctor Helicopters, and the operation cost problem, among other obstacles, is beginning to resolve step by step.
Here, we would like to note that even though a Doctor Helicopter may cost 200 million yen annually (which sounds quite expensive), and if they are deployed to 50 locations across Japan, that totals to 10 billion yen a year. However, this only costs 80 yen per capita annually. By this small expense, 25,000 people can be treated a year, and the lives of nearly 30 percent of these people can be saved. If you think about this high life-saving effect, Doctor Helicopters are not a luxury.
To further promote the deployment of Doctor Helicopters, in June 2007, the Act on Special Measures concerning Securing of Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (Doctor Helicopter Special Act) was enacted as a lawmaker-initiated legislation. In autumn 2008, the Parliamentary Group for the Promotion of Doctor Helicopters was formed as bi-partisan group of 140 Parliament members. Concerted efforts to deploy Doctor Helicopters throughout Japan are being pursued beyond party interests to enhance regional emergency medical service systems.