A government initiative to helicopter doctors to accident sites has been grounded by bureaucratic bickering over the use of a radio band to facilitate coordination of such operations, government sources said Wednesday.

The initiative, endorsed by the Health Ministry and used on a trial basis in several areas, has proved successful in reducing fatalities.

However, despite having been slated for widespread adoption in April, the plan remains in limbo, with the Fire and Disaster Management Agency refusing to authorize the use of a radio band to allow communication between all staff involved, on grounds that it could hamper operations of firefighters and other emergency medical services.

Airlifting emergency doctors to accident sites is common in many Western countries. Germany introduced the system in 1970, and traffic accident deaths have dropped significantly as a result.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry held trial runs in 1999 and 2000 in Kanagawa and Okayama prefectures, and estimated that deaths from cerebral apoplexy, traffic accidents and other situations requiring immediate medical attention were nearly halved as a result.

The ministry drew up a five-year plan to eventually cover areas served by 30 hospitals, with doctors from six hospitals in Okayama, Shizuoka and Fukuoka prefectures taking part in the first year.

However, the FDMA has said allocating a radio frequency band for the chopper service could cause interference with other bands already used by firefighters and other ambulance services.

The Health Ministry said the FDMA has been making various demands as preconditions for allocating the frequency, forcing the ministry to offer the chopper transport since April without being able to use its chosen radio frequency band.

But the FDMA says the ministry has not requested a specific frequency and that it does not make sense for the ministry to make a request before it selects which hospitals will participate in the initiative.

Officials who took part in the recent trial run said that without a designated frequency on which to communicate, the effectiveness of the plan, and thereby the ability to save lives, would be limited.

In Shizuoka Prefecture, an official at Seirei Mikatagahara Hospital, which introduced a chopper service independently in 1999, said it has since provided an average of more than 500 helicopter transports per year. Of these, 90 percent were requested by firefighters.

In these cases, doctors communicated with firefighters by telephone prior to boarding but were often stymied by their inability to communicate with ground crews while en route, meaning they were unable to prepare for sudden changes in patients’ conditions or other critical factors, the official said.

Pilots also want a communication channel to confirm whether they can safely land near the accident site, according to the official.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.