Most people remember the TV show MASH. Set during the Korean War, it featured patients being flown into a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) with Bell 47 helicopters. In the beginning of the conflict the helicopters would occasionally pick up wounded soldiers when not busy with other missions. When doctors started noting that the survival rate increased when patients were transported by air, the Army took notice. The military started dedicating helicopters to medevac missions and when the Korean War ended over 22,000 wounded troops were transported by helicopters resulting in a lower mortality rate than previous wars. The Army further developed this concept with the Vietnam War by adding more sophistication, like in-flight medical care. Mortality rates continued falling and during the course of this conflict more than 800,000 wounded soldiers were transported.
Many returning military personnel understand the advantages of transporting trauma patients by helicopter first hand and starting applying these concepts to the civilian world. In 1970, the Maryland State Police Air Unit transported the first trauma patient by helicopter. Two years later the first hospital based helicopter program was launched at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado. By 1980, there were roughly 32 hospital based programs flying about 17,000 patients a year.
At this point the HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) was a proven concept and the industry began to really organize. Medical interiors started getting more sophisticated and standards, guidelines and training programs for crew members were developed. By 2000, the number of programs had grown to 231 operating over 400 aircraft. Today, there are over 300 air medical programs operating about 900 helicopters.