HEBER CITY — Changes in Utah weather occasionally prohibit medical helicopters from flying to the aid of patients in critical need.
And with the state's plentiful opportunities for outdoor recreation — many of which are in rural or frontier locations — it's common for individuals to find themselves needing that higher-level of care when it is sometimes out of reach, said Dr. Kris Kemp, emergency medical director at Intermountain Healthcare's Heber Valley and Park City medical centers.
"And (in those instances), time is of the essence," he said. "These are people in critical condition and there can be a challenge in getting the right person there to help."
Kemp is at the helm of Intermountain's new Life Flight Ground Transport program, the first of its kind in the nation, which aims to place specialty-trained nurses aboard ambulances when Life Flight helicopters can't perform a transport. He said it will help keep a patient stabilized on the way to larger medical facilities in Utah's population centers such as Provo, Salt Lake City or Ogden.
"It's always in the patient's best interest to go to the nearest hospital first to be stabilized, and then be transported to a trauma center," Kemp said, adding that about 10 percent of emergency patients are transported from Heber Valley Medical Center to larger facilities.
Either because of weather or a lack of resources, Life Flight cannot assist with the transport of about 500 patients each year, according to Intermountain spokesman Jess Gomez. He said some patients are too sick to be treated at a rural hospital, but not sick enough to be transported by emergency helicopter.
The new program partners with local emergency medical services divisions, including ambulance agencies throughout rural areas of the state.
"I like the fact we're a team. We're working toward a common goal, and that's the health of the patients," said Wasatch County EMS director Clair Provost.
The county has seven ambulances (three based at the hospital in Heber City and one each in the surrounding communities of Midway, Wallsburg, Jordanelle and Timber Lakes) that responded to 1,300 calls in 2013. An increase in the popularity of outdoor races, as well as other plentiful events in the Heber Valley, Provost said, have increased the number of situations requiring emergency care.
Ambulances are typically staffed with emergency medical technicians who can assuredly handle any emergency, he said, adding that "the capability of our EMTs is not in question. This is about what is best for the patient."
In any situation requiring a medical helicopter, Provost said, "when they touch down, it is truly reassuring to us."
In addition to Heber Valley, the ground transport program is already being used at six other Intermountain rural community hospitals, including Cassia Regional Medical Center in southern Idaho, and Delta Community Medical Center, Fillmore Community Medical Center, Park City Medical Center, Sevier Valley Medical Center and Bear River Valley Hospital in Utah.
Until now, patients needing emergency transport have been cared for by hospital personnel until critical care nurses can arrive, and drive time has created a gap in service.
Intermountain plans to train at least 10 emergency department nurses at each of the participating hospitals to provide the intensive care needed during critical transports.
"There is no doubt EMS agencies are second to none. There are just certain skills local agencies can't provide," Kemp said. "This will raise the level of care and provide the expertise patients require in their time of need."
He said the new service isn't meant to detract from Life Flight or take business away from Life Flight. He hopes it will help improve care delivered to patients, especially those in time-sensitive conditions.
"It will be because those flights cannot occur," Kemp said.
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