Previously, the only use that was being seen for medical flight services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic was the transportation of infected patients from rural America. The reasoning behind this was that the urban part of the nation is better equipped to provide healthcare. However, it was later seen that the rural spread was quite limited. Unfortunately, recent trends have been quite different. While global cities such as New York continue to grapple with the disease, the infection is now seen making way towards inner parts of the nation, especially the rural regions. The reason for this could be several, including people from cities finding save havens in isolated rural regions.
Chronically Ill will Need Medical Flight Services
The Novel Coronavirus is known to increase the risk of people with co-morbidities, especially if they are over 60 years of age. It must be noted in this context that most of the rural population in the United States is old and is at high risk of losing lives if faced by a COVID-19 attack. Imagine someone suffering from cancer and also contracting the disease. The only recourse would be to take the patient to the nearest appropriate treating facility in the shortest possible time. That would, undoubtedly, necessitate medical flight services.
An Industry Struggling to Stay Afloat
The medical flight industry has been at the forefront of evacuating American citizens who are stuck in countries hit by COVID-19. However, it is worth noting here that the industry, which was already struggling to survive due to high costs, has had it even worse amid the pandemic. The demand for services has fallen drastically. Moreover, personal protective equipment has been hard to procure. The biggest hurdle has been the lack of frontline workers as most of them are now fighting the virus on the ground.
We have been quite vocal about the fact that air ambulance services will have a crucial role to play in the fight against COVID-19 as the battle hardens. It seems that the industry is now an integral part of the fight. Amid challenges that are being faced by medical flight crews and companies, they have displayed exemplary grit to keep the services afloat.
Air Ambulance Services are Brining Back Americans
Most internal national borders today stand sealed down. Only those flights that have special permission are allowed to fly between countries. Commercial flights are increasingly being used to fly patients who are not infected. However, there are a lot of Americans out there who are battling COVID-19 infections in foreign lands. Air ambulance companies are now helping evacuate them. The effort is ongoing at a war footing in the Caribbean and Latin American regions. A Florida-based air ambulance company is leading it currently. The medical flight crew consists of two medical professionals and two pilots enveloped in biohazard suits.
Phoenix Air is Leading the Fight in the Air
Phoenix Air, at the current time, is the only air ambulance company that is equipped to tackle highly contagious diseases. It has two Gulfstream G-III aircraft that feature Aeromedical Biological Containment Systems or ABCS. They are capable of carrying 4 infected patients each. The system was put in place during the Ebola crisis and had proved highly successful. The model is now being used to fight the COVID-19 crisis. The medical flight company plans to add two more specialized aircraft to its fleet.
Support for Air Ambulance Operations in the UK
The UK is again leading the way when it comes to offering support for the medical flight industry. It is believed that the Great North Air Ambulance service will now be offered free fuel during the crisis. Fund-raising is a big concern for the industry in the country due to the current COVID-19 situation.
Keeping medical flights afloat during the ongoing COVID-19 spread is turning out to be an uphill task for most air ambulance companies. Several issues that were never thought of before are surfacing now. Shortage is a word that is widespread in the industry today. We take a look at some of the issues that are hindering the functioning of the industry.
Professionals Being Moved Away from Medical Flights
The shortage of frontline, qualified medical staff is a well-known problem in the current scenario. No amount of frontline medical workers is proving enough to tackle the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, staff serving medical flights is being called to fill this deficit. The development is quite understandable, but it is certainly hindering the air ambulance services.
Lack of Adequate Medical Flights
COVID-19 has given too little time for medical flights to adapt. Isolation facilities are not good enough to carry infected patients in most medical flights. Employing these can, no doubt, put the frontline workers at risk of contracting the highly contagious infection.
Lack of Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment is essential if emergency workers are to function seamlessly. However, every country around the world is currently facing a shortage of these. This is a huge roadblock.
Fall in Emergency Cases
The lockdown that is being followed in almost all countries around the world has translated into less road traffic, and as a consequence, MVAs have gone down. Also, it is not easy for people to procure illicit substances, so related cases have also gone down. There is, therefore, a slight slump in demand, which is quite welcome.
Once the world goes back to normal, it is expected that the medical flights too will be able to function normally. Until then, the industry will function as efficiently as possible given the constraints.
The job of the air ambulance professionals is tough no doubt but it has gotten tougher owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the healthcare workers are exposed to the risk of contracting the Coronavirus infection which has enveloped the world in a dreadful storm. While the usual precautions that are taken by the general public apply to the air ambulance professionals too, there are additional precautions that are expected to be taken by these frontline workers. Washing hands, keeping alcohol-based sanitizers, and face masks apart from protective bodysuits are just a few of the obvious ones. We take a look at other precautions that must be taken by the medical flight workers.
CPR is a Risk for Air Ambulance Professionals
A lot of the emergency calls that air ambulance professionals receive are related to drug overdoses and cardiovascular problems. Both of these conditions can necessitate cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR. However, in the face of the Coronavirus infection, this can pose a real, life-threatening problem to the healthcare workers. The constant compression of the chest can release salivary particles that can enter the system of a healthy individual through the air or simply settle down on the clothing. If the CPR is being conducted in a closed environment, the risk can compound itself greatly.
Only the Very Serious Emergencies Must be Attended
Even hospitals today are considering only tending to the very serious cases that need hospital attention. The emergency department professionals are donning full protective gear when taking a look at emergency cases. The reason for this is obvious: they have no idea whether the symptoms are because of COVID-19.
Hospital emergency departments are asking the frontline on-the-field healthcare workers to wait for a while and try to revive them before even considering bringing them to the hospital for further care.
Frequent travelers – especially those who go to various countries for business – usually make sure that they have an emergency air ambulance evacuation membership. These memberships are in addition to the travel insurance coverage that is usually bought.
Today, COVID-19 has thrown up new problems when it comes to evacuation utilizing air ambulance services across borders. The million-dollar question, therefore, is this – “are air ambulance evacuation memberships useless in the current scenario?”
International Air Ambulance Evacuation Memberships are Currently of No Use
One thing that most countries have in common during this COVID-19 pandemic is the lockdown. Almost all countries have locked their borders to international flights. No one can get in or out of a country any longer unless it is a rescue mission that is conducted by the governments at the highest diplomatic levels. What use is an air ambulance evacuation membership in this scenario? The answer to this question is obvious. There is no much that a medical flight company can do in a situation like this. However, the efficacy of this emergency transport remains for domestic transfers. They are all the more important in the face of the Coronavirus epidemic that has gripped the United States today.
Air Ambulance Membership and Domestic Emergency Evacuation
The United States is preparing to face the pandemic on a war footing. However, the risk of spread to the rural areas still looms large. If there is an outbreak in the rural areas, air ambulance memberships are going to come quite handy. Reaching the urban medical facilities on time will be crucial for those who are severely infected by Coronavirus.
In this context, people must note that it is only the most severe of the cases that are admitted to hospitals for critical care and ventilator support. However, most of the infections are mild, and experts say that some are even asymptomatic.
As the United States comes to a realization that its healthcare system – one of the most expensive in the world – is not all that prepared to handle the Coronavirus or COVID-119 pandemic, medical flights are turning out to be the most viable option, especially for rural communities of the country. According to one estimate by Kaiser Health News, there are over 7 million people in the United States who are 60-plus and at a particularly high risk of severe Coronavirus infection. Now, add to the mix, the fact that over half of the counties in the country do not have enough intensive care beds and the magnitude of the problem suddenly dawns upon us.
Reaching Intensive Care Units via Medical Flights
Intensive care units usually have high-tech bedside equipment that is, otherwise, absent in regular healthcare facilities. They have ventilators that are essential for survival in severe COVID-19 cases. In this context, it must be noted that in most counties, where intensive care units are available, the number of beds is hugely limited. At times, it is just one bed for a few hundred seniors. For instance, it has been highlighted that in Jefferson County, the Louisville area has just one intensive care unit bed for almost 450 people. If you thought that was bad, imagine the state of Santa Cruz, California, which just has one for over 2,500 people. However, the numbers improve significantly when it comes to urban areas. This gap can be efficiently bridged by medical flights.
Costs, Insurance, and Medical Flights
In the days to come, it is the will of the government that will matter the most. If drastic steps are taken to take care of the cost of medical flights through better insurance coverage or government aid, the situation can be handled better. At the current time, a clear indication needs to go out to the providers of medical flights, so that they can prep their choppers and airplanes to aid in the containment of the pandemic in a timely manner.
Imagine an emergency situation where a cruise ship is stranded in the middle of the ocean with hundreds of people on it. The only way out is an air ambulance service, due to time constraints and the less-than-ideal condition of the ship. However, there is one big challenge. Helicopters can only function one at a time due to turbulence. While multiple choppers can be put into play, only one can hoist people at any given time. That is not the end of it. The hoists that are commonly used are only capable of carrying one person at a time, and it roughly takes about three minutes at a minimum to onboard one person.
How can an Air Ambulance Enhance Hoisting Capacity?
Traditionally, air ambulance helicopters have gone with hoists that are capable of carrying about 500 to 600 pounds of weight at the max. This translates not to more than two people. Also, often, rescuers have to be on the hoist to assist in the evacuation. This makes the whole process inefficient and time-consuming. However, today, thanks to advances in technology, hoist baskets are being produced. The design and metallurgical expertise make them light and sturdy. These are capable of carrying up to 4,400 pounds and can accommodate up to 15 people at a time.
The Capacity of the Helicopter also Matters
Baskets are available in various capacities. Depending on how powerful the chopper is, an appropriate basket can be chosen. The baskets are approved by the regulatory authorities too. They are considered not only safe but also very comfortable. These baskets are brand named Heli-Baskets and currently are in production. If adopted by the air ambulance industry with open arms, these rescue equipment can change the way hoisting is conducted during rescue missions. They can make the whole exercise cheaper, quick, comfortable, and efficient.
Medical air transport could witness a drastic transformation if the Urban Air Mobility challenge is successful. The intent behind the challenge is to bring greater mobility to urban areas that are usually dense with people and traffic, hindering emergency transportation. The challenge has been put forth by NASA. The organization has already signed up 17 different agencies in the aviation industry, and the results could bring about a sea of change in medical air transport. NASA will be leveraging its partnership with the FAA to make the effort successful. Moreover, it would help to expedite the most viable solutions.
Although the challenge will begin this year, the first actual Grand Challenge will be held in the year 2022 where developmental activities will finally take place. This will include real-world scenarios as well as simulation environments. The participants will be judged on criteria such as communication, surveillance, and navigation. NASA will help the chosen ones with quick approvals and tech certifications.
Healthcare Technology and Medical Air Transport
Royal Philips is a well-known player in the international health technology domain. Now, the organization has embarked on an effort to make emergency services such as medical air transport more efficient. The company plans to first look at the wealth of data that the healthcare industry currently sits upon. This can help emergency services be more precise in their response. For instance, a medical air transport company, with the help of real-time data, will be able to carry the right specialists and the right equipment for better outcomes.
At the same time, Philips is trying to make bulky equipment such as defibrillators and monitors more compact so that they can be carried around more easily. If successful, the effort could result in better patient and provider satisfaction. It may even cut the cost of emergency medical services.
In the prevailing scenario, patients and emergency personnel rely heavily on phone calls to summon medical flights. The methodology is highly time-consuming and necessitates a lot of information to set up an air ambulance and then dispatch it. This is not an ideal situation when the patient needs urgent care, especially when technological advancements are capable of making things much easier. We use mobile applications every day to order taxi services. What if we could replicate the model to order medical flights too? Would it not be an ideal replacement for the current time-consuming methodology? Let’s take a look at the different aspects.
Integrating Medical Flights – More Power to Choose
Imagine a mobile application that allows you to choose from a list of air ambulance service providers. Out-of-network services will cease to be a problem and insurance companies will be more likely to approve the claims that a consequence of ordering medical flights. From patients to physicians, everyone would have instant access to multiple service providers. The app can also feature details about air ambulance affiliations with various insurance networks. The whole exercise would be much more efficient than it currently is.
Integrating Medical Flights with Electronic Health Systems
Patient information is today stored in highly secure electronic health systems. Hospitals and medical service providers are mandated by the government to store patient information in these systems. What this means is that all patient information such as medical history, allergy, family history, etc., is readily available during emergencies. Imagine connecting this data to the patient through the app. As soon as medical flights are called for, a notification can directly go to the receiving physician, along with all the medical details. If this becomes a reality, the receiving facility would be much better prepared for the patients and will be able to offer timely care, resulting in faster recovery.
Amid thundering engines and pounding heartbeats, crews of medical flights set out on life-saving missions every day. The mission starts even before the takeoff. The planning begins with choosing the right crew, the right aircraft, ground coordination, specialists – the list goes on. On long-haul flights, it is also about accommodating the crew members of the medical flights once they land in far off places. Accounting for all the eventualities is what makes a mission successful.
Medical Flights beyond Borders
It takes anywhere between 12 hours to a day to get appropriate permissions for medical flights to cross borders. Failing to achieve this, can result in unnecessary delays and administrative hurdles. When the patient is critical, such a waste of time is can prove to be the difference between life and death. The degree of difficulty in obtaining these permits varies from one country to another. It can cost anywhere between USD 50 and USD 400.
Security of Medical Flights
All said and done, there are always those rare instances where air ambulances have to take off, and the ground staff then has to quickly work towards obtaining the permits. Security is a prime concern in such instances, especially if the travel destination is politically volatile. Experienced medical flight service providers are well aware of such issues and are always prepared for them. They know the process and the people in the right places to make it happen.
Planning the Duration
Typically, air ambulances can be prepared to take off within an hour but these are always short-haul. For longer distances, it can take twice this time. Fuel, medical supplies, landing permits, etc. are part of the preparation.
Medical flights are usually called for emergencies. It takes an experienced crew to smoothly handle the unexpected. This includes the pilot and also coordinators during long flights.