High-income countries have well developed ambulance services. However, investment in acquiring and maintaining effective systems of transport for sick and injured patients does not seem to have been a priority for many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In some settings, for example post conflict states, lack of ambulance services is understandable; what is the point of transferring people to non-functioning or non-existent hospitals? But most LMICs do have a network of hospitals providing emergency care. The point must be reached where the opportunity costs of further improvements in fixed facilities is less than those of providing transport to reach the facilities in the first place.
There are many types of transport: motorised ambulance, motorbike ambulance, bicycle ambulance, and private vehicles. These different types of transport operate with or without trained clinical staff to accompany the patient. Moreover, there are many different types of clinical scenario where rapid transport may be required, from a very sick child to major trauma. There are also many different settings, rural vs. urban for example. The cost-effectiveness of different forms of transport will vary considerably between these different types of vehicle, different staff configurations, different clinical scenarios, and different geographical settings. Thus, the cost-effectiveness of a given type of transport, staffed in a given way and dealing with a particular clinical scenario, may have different effects and costs in different geographic and social contexts.
However, there is one unifying variable that underpins all cost-effectiveness calculations: this is the function that relates marginal changes in transport times in reaching a facility to the contingent marginal changes in outcome. In many circumstances death is the primary outcome of interest. Then, given an estimate of the relationship between time delay and survival, a local decision-maker can populate a cost-effectiveness model with context specific data. In this way it is possible to calibrate the anticipated benefit of a proposed transport system through its effect on reducing time to treatment.
In a forthcoming paper we will develop the model that relates transfer time to survival, taking into account costs, baseline survival rates, and whether or not treatment is administered in association with transport. To illustrate the model we will populate it with data for one particular scenario: snake bite. We use snake bite as the example, not only for its (considerable) intrinsic interest, but also because the best data we can find for transport time vs. survival rates, relates to snake bite. Our purpose is to illustrate the methodology so that it can be applied more generally. The case for ambulance services, of any particular type and in any setting, turns on its use across all emergency conditions. The investment case certainly could not be made on the basis of just one condition, least of all an uncommon scenario such as snake bite. Nevertheless, the model we propose could be used across a range of common scenarios to build up a case for a particular type of transport in a particular context.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director