Characteristics of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) dispatch cancellations during a six-year period in a Dutch HEMS region

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Background: For decades, Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) contribute greatly to prehospital patient care by performing advanced medical interventions on-scene. Unnecessary dispatches, resulting in cancellations, cause these vital resources to be temporarily unavailable and generate additional costs. A previous study showed a cancellation rate of 43.5% in our trauma region. However, little recent data about cancellation rates and reasons exist, despite revision of dispatch protocols. This study examines the current cancellation rate in our trauma region over a six-year period. Additionally, cancellation reasons are evaluated per type of dispatch and initial incident report, upon which HEMS is dispatched. Methods: This retrospective study analyzed the data of the Dutch HEMS Lifeliner 1 (North-West region of the Netherlands, covering a population of 5 million inhabitants), analyzing all subsequent cases between April 1st 2013 and April 1st 2019. Patient characteristics, type of dispatch (primary; based on dispatcher criteria versus secondary, as judged by the first ambulance team on site), initial incident report received by the EMS dispatch center, and information regarding day- or nighttime dispatches were collected. In case of cancellation, cancel rate and reason per type of dispatch and initial incident report were assessed. Results: In total, 18,638 dispatches were included. HEMS was canceled in 54.5% (95% CI 53.8–55.3%) of cases. The majority of canceled dispatches (76.1%) were canceled because respiratory, hemodynamic, and neurologic parameters were stable. Dispatches simultaneously activated with EMS (primary dispatch) were canceled in 58.3%, compared to 15.1% when HEMS assistance was requested by EMS based on their findings on-scene (secondary dispatch). A cancellation rate of 54.6% was found in trauma related dispatches (n = 12,148), compared to 52.2% in non-trauma related dispatches (n = 5378). Higher cancellation rates exceeding 60% were observed in the less common dispatch categories, e.g., anaphylaxis (66.3%), unknown incident report (66.0%), assault with a blunt object (64.1%), obstetrics (62.8%), and submersion (61.9%). Conclusion: HEMS cancellations are increased, compared to previous research in our region. Yet, the cancellations are acceptable as the effect on HEMS’ unavailbility remains minimized. Focus should be on identifying the patient in need of HEMS care while maintaining overtriage rates low. Continuous evaluation of HEMS triage is important, and dispatch criteria should be adjusted if necessary.
Original languageEnglish
Article number50
JournalBMC emergency medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021


  • Cancellation
  • Dispatch
  • Helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS)
  • Mechanism of injury (MOI)
  • Trauma

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