The United States has one of the largest air ambulance industries in the entire world. This is in spite of the fact that it is not the most densely populated country in the world. It is, therefore, natural that one wonders why this is so. There are several reasons behind it. One of the prime reasons is the potential for revenue. However, there is another important aspect to it, which is not often considered. The United States is a country that has a huge rural population. It is without quick access to appropriate medical facilities and air ambulance services are a necessity.
Air Ambulance Services Close the Distance Gap
Although the United States is not a densely populated country, it is one of the largest when it comes to the landmass. This means that the population in the country is spread thinly across a large geographical area. Moreover, the cities are very thickly populated, which means the population in the rural areas is thinly distributed. This fact acts as a disincentive for any major medical corporation to have a facility in the areas as the number of potential revenue-generating subjects is very not that great.
Air Ambulance Industry is a Profitable One
Closing the gap created by the lack of medical facilities in the rural areas is the air ambulance industry. Most of the time, the only way a patient can get quick access to advanced medical care is through air ambulance services. This fact increases the customer base of the industry. With most of these organizations being funded by private equity, obviously, a lot of investment has gone into the sector. The result has been a huge increase in the number of air ambulance services that rule the country’s skies. With the surprise billing practices slated to come to a close soon, the general public will soon reap the true benefits of having several air ambulance companies at their disposal.
If there is one thing that’s constant about medical flights, it is the fact that the industry is continually reinventing itself. From electric medical flights that are capable of vertical takeoff to dashboards that keep the crew updated with all the information they need during the flight, the sector is full of innovations. However, these innovations bring along something that the industry and its consumers do not desire, and that is the increase in costs. Balancing costs and enhanced efficiency is something that the industry has grappled with for quite some time. The question that arises is whether the innovations are proving too expensive for the industry.
The Rising Cost of Medical Flights has been a Long-Time Concern
The cost of medical flights never fails to make headlines. When middle-class families get slapped with huge air ambulance bills, eyebrows are naturally raised. The insurance coverage is often non-existent or so scant that they fail to cover the costs.
Innovations, in the midst of all this, can prove to be an added cost burden discouraging the industry to go ahead with them. Contributing further to it is the training and adaptation cost that adds fuel to fire. Then, what is the solution?
Rethinking the Least Likely Spaces
Fuel is one area that is a money burner. Aviation fuel does not come cheap. Moreover, the fuel itself is heavy, which translates into a need for more fuel to carry it. What if a predictive technology can be innovated to maintain optimum fuel levels? The other area is the material that goes into building the medical flights. What if the material that is lighter and less friction-causing is innovated? The list goes on. Of course, the focus needs to be trained on affordability.
All the research should ideally be funded by governments, communities, and corporates together with industry leaders. A model like this can truly take the costs in the right direction.
According to one research medical flight services run by for-profit organizations had seen, on average, 7 to 8 crashes a year between 1998 and 2012. Of these mishaps, the biggest contributors were those organizations that ran the most medical flights. This raised serious concerns about the safety norms followed by the industry and several studies and investigations were performed simultaneously to make the skies safer for the crew and the patients. The result was some startling revelations. It was seen that the crew was pressured to make as many flights as possible in a day to maintain the profitability of the organizations that they worked for.
What Were the Medical Flight Services Doing?
It was seen that medical flight services were taking orders for new rescue missions even during an ongoing mission. This caused unnecessary operational chaos and instilled a sense of urgency among the crew members. Moreover, it was seen that ground ambulance paramedics were being hired by medical flight services too. This was causing a conflict of interest, wherein the possibility of the paramedics contacting their favored service providers was high. It was also found that some so-called rescues were actually unnecessary as they did not provide any advantage over the ground transportation.
New Safety Laws were Passed
The medical flight industry was subjected to intense scrutiny. Certain safeguards such as maximum permissible hours of work for crew members and laws concerning visibility were put in place. The aging aircrafts had to be replaced by new and safer ones. Upgrades with respect to technology were also made compulsory in certain areas. Better weather reporting and aids for in-flight decision-making were put in place. It can be stated, with confidence, today, that medical flight services are safer and more efficient. The industry and the patients that it serves have benefitted immensely from these developments.
The air ambulance industry has seen several technological advancements in recent times and so have drone designs. However, it is noteworthy that there are not many drones being used in the civilian space meaningfully. Of course, drones are being used in the military space extensively and with high success rates. What is stopping drones from entering the air ambulance industry? This is a question that naturally arises. In this context, it must be noted that it was the military that first adopted medical flights, which eventually became what we refer to today as the civilian air ambulance industry.
What will it Take Drones to Enter the Air Ambulance Industry?
Military drones usually function in no-man zones in war-torn or border areas where there are not many obstructions. They have a fixed task and a fixed target. There is a huge support system on the ground that adds to the functionality of the drones. However, this is not yet the case with the air ambulance industry. Looking at it from a civilian perspective, most of the drones would need to function in areas that are teeming with people, vehicles, and urban infrastructure. These translate into obstacles. Navigating through them is easier said than done.
Obstacle Avoidance is Key to Success
What if the drones are able to avoid obstacles on their own without the need for external interference? A sensory advancement like this can make a huge difference. Come to think of it, the feat is not impossible, especially considering the fact that this is precisely what autonomous vehicles do.
Of course, navigability is another issue. The ground controls that can remotely monitor the drones are limited by range. While satellite controls can be brought into the picture, the danger of misuse of such technological access looms large. The need, therefore, is for a middle ground where safety and efficiency are both ensured. For now, it is a game of wait-and-watch.