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.
Healthcare costs are not just about air ambulance costs. The United States of America has one of the highest healthcare costs in the entire world. An average American spends over 10 thousand USD in a year and the nation spends 3.3 trillion USD each year. This amounts to about 18 percent of the country’s GDP. Let alone the need for an air ambulance, a simple emergency room visit can leave a foreign national in huge debt. Hospitals simply do not release patients unless the care debts are paid out in full. A scenario like this can quickly turn a fun vacation into a financial nightmare, leaving the patient bankrupt.
A New Legislation May Necessitate Insurance
Although the legislation is primarily targeted towards immigrants to the nation, it is not entirely clear whether it applies to visitors to the nation as well. According to the new law, immigrants will have to purchase insurance for a period of 365 days or until such time that they stay in the country, whichever comes earlier. The move is meant to insulate the country from bearing high healthcare costs. In the face of this uncertainty, experts recommend that, regardless of the regulation, visitors must opt for comprehensive insurance.
A Policy that Covers Air Ambulance Services is Ideal
Not all visitors to the country arrive without insurance. However, many of them do not opt for adequate coverage. A slightly expensive premium can offer comprehensive coverage. Here is a scenario: you embark on a cruise during your visit. Unfortunately, you end up having a stroke. You will need to be flown to the nearest appropriate medical facility via an air ambulance service. The cost of this transport is going to cost quite a lot. The wise thing to do, therefore, is to explicitly ask your insurance provider about air ambulance coverage to stay safe.
Medical flight professionals function in an atmosphere of uncertainty today where what seems like an unknown illness can be a highly infectious disease, especially with the flu season and infections like Novel Coronavirus making rounds. In this context, how can they ensure their safety while caring for the sick? The question beckons some thought and also a few precautions to remain safe. Difficulty breathing, fever, and cough can be reason enough to take the precautions that we discuss below. The idea is for medical flight personnel to remain prepared to avoid any unforeseen eventualities.
Precautions to be Taken by Medical Flight Professionals
The foremost thing to do is to handle bodily fluids such as blood, vomit, and diarrhea with utmost caution. In this regard, hand washing is very important. Washing hands often when in contact with patients with respiratory difficulty is advisable. Soap is effective, but alcohol-based cleaning agent, which contains at least 60% alcohol is also advised. Care must be taken to not touch the nose, eyes, or mouth with unwashed hands. Medical flight professionals must make ample use of disposable gloves while handling patients. These must be disposed of carefully in biohazard bags. It must be kept in mind that hands are washed even after removing the gloves.
Other Precautions that are Necessary
In areas that are known to have even the smallest number of infected patients, medical flight professionals must make use of bodysuits that are certified to insulate from infections. Since it is suspected that Novel Coronavirus can be aerosolized, it is wise to wear a facemask as a form of protection. Also, the number of personnel coming in direct contact with the sick should be minimized, although it is impossible to completely eliminate this possibility. Most importantly, one should be well-versed with the precautions put forth by the CDC.
Drones have immense potential to augment the efforts of the air ambulance industry. They reduce costs, reach treacherous terrains, and function in risky situations. Thanks to modern technologies like cloud computing and Internet of Things, drones today are making advances in leaps and bounces. However, drones can be a menace too. Flying too close to air ambulances have caused many flights to be aborted midway and led to near-fatal accidents. The fact that such disturbances occur when carrying critical patients is an added insult to the injury. In other words, the air ambulance industry views drones with a mixed feeling. Here, we take a look at some recent developments that prove our point.
The Air Ambulance Industry is Trying to Tackle Stray Drones
Air ambulance industry experts say that, in the UK, drones are not allowed to fly over 400 feet. Failing to comply with this rule can attract fines of up to 1,000 British pounds. However, the problem is that air ambulances, most of the time, are compelled to fly below this altitude. With a growing number of hobbyists taking up flying drones, this is turning out to be a real danger for the air ambulance industry.
The only thing that medical flight organizations can do in this scenario is building awareness. Industry experts say that a good rule of thumb is to keep the drones in sight at all times. If the drone is not visible to the hobbyist, it is likely that it is disturbing a helicopter, likely a medical flight that is en route, trying to help a critical patient before it is too late.
A Full-Service Drone Company Takes Birth in the United States
There is also some good news for the air ambulance industry pertaining to drones. A company by the name Aquiline has come up with a drone that is capable of executing medical rescue operations. The company has developed a dedicated cloud environment and an operating system to make drone operations seamless.
In light of the above developments, it is safe to say that responsible use of drones will definitely help the air ambulance industry in the future.
It is believed that the medical flights will be in great demand for most part of the next two decades and will grow at a rate of 9.3%. In the past year, the industry grew to US$ 4,524.7 million. Those are some robust numbers and not the kind we commonly see in the prevailing economy. What are the driving factors behind these trends? It is certainly not the affordability of the people as evident by the growing concerns surrounding the balance bills that never fail to make the headlines. It is the medical need that is driving the air ambulance industry. Here are some sharp insights.
Medical Flights and Diabetes
Perhaps the most common lifestyle disease that prevails today is diabetes. While there is nothing that cries emergency about diabetes, it is a cause for more serious ailments. People with diabetes are known to eventually develop serious heart and kidney conditions, which give rise to life-threatening emergencies. This is where medical flights come into picture. With the US fighting obesity and diabetes (as a consequence), the market is set on an upswing. In fact, currently, there are about 463 million diabetics in the country, and it is projected to reach 700 million in the next 25 years.
Medical Flights and Drug-Related Emergencies
The illicit drug menace has bothered the country for long. Today, it is believed drugs are among the biggest killers when it comes to people under the age of 50. A lot of times, these give rise to serious and unexpected medical emergencies ranging from overdose to motor vehicle accidents. Medical flights are the only recourse in most cases.
Medical Flights and Rural Hospitals
It is a known fact that rural hospitals have been closing down at a rapid rate in the country, and the trend has been up since a decade now. Medical flights are the only way out for the residents of such areas.
In a way, the market for medical flights is a reflection of how healthy the society is.
The air ambulance industry has been in the headlines for quite some time now. Most recently, however, it was because the state of Wyoming was attempting to regulate it. The hurdle was (and is) a federal regulation that prohibits state governments from interfering in the affairs of air ambulance industry. However, the attempts were rejected by CMS. Wyoming had proposed that the states must be allowed a say in the matters of air ambulance industry. It had done so to keep the cost of medical flight services at bay as they have been getting steeply expensive recently.
Does this Mean the Air Ambulance Industry has Won?
The answer is “yes.” At least for now, the air ambulance industry seems to have won. The CMS verdict favors the medical flight service providers. They will not be subjected to any state control and will be free to fly across state borders and also charge the consumers what they feel is the right amount.
The industry had feared that if they are forced to come under insurance networks, they will then have to conform to the reimbursement rates that are set by the insurance organizations. This was especially worrying since the rates have not been revised in over a decade. Moreover, since bidding system to offer services for a particular state would have come into picture, there were high chances that some insurance companies would have gone out of business.
What does it Mean for Consumers?
Consumers will now have access to a wide range of air ambulance companies. This means they will be able to avail specialized medical flights during emergencies. Since the profitability will remain unchanged, the air ambulance industry would find it financially encouraging extending their reach to remotest parts of the country. There, however, is one drawback. Since insurance companies have not still revised their reimbursement rates, the consumers are at risk of high out-of-pocket expenses.