Air ambulance industry and drones – the partnership sounds like a perfect plot for another part of the ‘Back to the Future’ series, doesn’t it? Well, not anymore. The possibility seems more like a reality with several firms working towards this goal today. We are already used to seeing drones among hobbyists, photographers, and even scientists. Then there are what seems like hypothetical implementations such as flying taxis and courier services. You will be surprised to know that companies such as Amazon and Uber are pursuing these possibilities with all seriousness and have invested quite a bit in them.
The Air Ambulance Industry is Already Using Drones
Emergency equipment like defibrillators is already being used by the air ambulance industry today, although the prevalence is not widely felt. Then there are larger drones, popular as autonomous aerial vehicles that are making news waves every now and then. Researchers are even working on surveillance drones for emergencies in remote areas. The ability of drones to reach areas where conventional helicopters cannot reach is their advantage. Besides, while a few thousand dollars might be at stake in risky situations, no lives are at risk with drones.
It is a Dicey Road to Tread
The problem lies in people not realizing the true potential of drones. More often, we find overenthusiastic hobbyists flying drones too close to flights. This is a concern that even the air ambulance industry has raised quite often. The prevalence of such use attracts the attention of lawmakers and rightly so, but they are also a hurdle.
It is quite possible that air ambulance industry operators will have to procure separate licenses when it comes to drones, once their use gains mainstream credibility. However, it might be a necessity considering that skies need to be safer for everyone. All said and done, the air ambulance industry is all set for a new evolution in the near future.
People around the world are wary of getting out of the confines of the home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The result has been a reduction in emergency calls for the air ambulance industry. The change has come into play due to the reduced crime rates and accidents as fewer people have ventured out lately. While this is a good sign in general, there is a negative commercial aspect to it that can affect this commercial emergency service profoundly. It must be understood that reduced calls affect the revenue of the air ambulance industry in general where most players are heavily indebted.
The Expenses have Increased
Responding to emergencies is no longer the same as it used to be. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed things deeply. Today, the paramedics must sport personal protective equipment (PPE) before they venture out into helping anyone on the ground. This is essential to protect the crew’s health and also that of the person who is facing the emergency. This results in a further uptick in the cost as these PPEs cannot be reused. Also, there are protocols in place for sanitization after each evacuation, which further adds to the cost.
The Air Ambulance Industry is Seeking Financial Aid
It is not that there has been no financial aid coming towards the air ambulance industry; however, it is yet to be seen how effective the distribution has been. It must be noted in this context that several small players in the industry cater to rural communities. These critical services are the only line of defense for these communities where local hospitals have shut down in large numbers. If these organizations are not helped financially, they might eventually shut down. It is therefore vital that a close watch is kept on the industry’s requirements.
In the past, the air ambulance industry has proved that it is an indispensable part of the health emergency services in the United States and beyond. The cost of availing the services has been a concern, but that apart, the utility of the air ambulance industry has never been questioned. Today, it plays an important role in repatriating COVID-19 patients from beyond the borders. It is also continuing to play a huge role in offering quality care to people in the rural parts of the United States. However, because of the COVID-19 situation, there needs to be a change in the way this industry functions.
Definition of Medical Necessity has Changed in the Air Ambulance Industry
Of course, we are not referring to medical necessity in the context of insurance coverage, approvals, etc. That remains the same. However, today, hospitals are encouraging people not to visit them unless it is important. The reason behind this is simple; people who already have a serious health condition must refrain from visiting spots that are hotbeds of COVID-19 infections, hospitals being one among these. The air ambulance industry is not completely prepared to handle this pandemic that is of epic proportions.
Recommending Air Ambulance Services Demands Careful Deliberation Today
Most of the helicopters in the air ambulance industry are not isolated enough to separate the patient from the rest of the crew. This poses a threat both to the healthcare workers and the patients. The problem of isolation does not exist in ground ambulances.
Besides, reaching the hospital early does not translate into immediate admissions today. Depending on the symptoms of the patient, he or she might need to be tested and isolated before being treated. The treatment protocols are still evolving. In essence, the physicians recommending air ambulance services should do so only after careful deliberation.
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.
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.
Prince William has spoken out about the psychological toll that the air ambulance industry takes on individuals that power it. Having worked as an air ambulance pilot himself, it has often been witnessed that when he highlights the issues concerning the industry, the world takes notice. He did it again recently this month. He shared how he had to, sometimes, ferry children who were in critical condition and how it ‘took him over the edge’. He called the air ambulance industry professionals to be open about the mental health challenges that they encounter on a regular basis and to seek help.
Seeking Help trough Colleagues
People sailing in the same boat often understand and are empathetic towards each other. Same is the case with air ambulance industry professionals. It becomes easy to open up to fellow colleagues about issues that affect them mentally. Talking things out is known to lighten the woes of the mind and to get a better perspective of life. Family and friends too can be a great source to get those nagging thoughts out of the mind. Awareness must be created in the industry. It must be conveyed that talking it out is healthy.
Mental Issues and Employers
Mentally healthy employees are always more productive. Plus, it is the responsibility of the employer to take care of the employees. This is not limited to physical well being but also the mental well being. The air ambulance industry today is governed heavily when it comes to safety of the crew and the patients when in midair. This ensures physical well being. However, laws must be enacted to protect mental well being of the workforce too. Easy access to mental health professionals is prime among them. It must be noted, in this context, that many players in the air ambulance industry are cognizant of this need and have created an ecosystem to promote mental health.
Surprise billing or balance billing is not just a problem specific to the air ambulance industry. The healthcare landscape itself is riddled with it. We have seen far too often that people who opt for a medical flight service receive huge bills that are not covered by the insurance network.
As a result, they end up liable to pay the surprise bill to the air ambulance service provider. While we often see that the money is waved off or a huge discount is offered, it is still an inconvenience and often a point of friction between the consumers and the medical flight company.
Is the Air Ambulance Industry Doing Enough?
Doubts are often raised whether the air ambulance industry is doing enough to keep the costs in check. While it is undeniable that there are some bad actors, the industry experts reveal that going in-network is not an option. The reason is the unfair reimbursement rates they say.
At the current time, the cost projections by the air ambulance industry and what the insurance companies are willing to reimburse are poles apart. Of course, there are some initiatives like memberships that medical flight companies offer, but not many are able to get the full benefits of such initiatives as consumers do not feel that necessity to pay extra, in addition to their insurance premiums.
What Can the Air Ambulance Industry Do Further?
It all comes down to negotiations. It is imperative that the air ambulance industry has a healthy discussion with the insurance companies to arrive at a fair reimbursement rates. The industry must be flexible enough to ultimately join the insurance networks.
Moreover, there is a necessity to present their points of view to the government so that there is a clear understanding of the roadblocks. The ultimate aim must be to unburden the common man.
Cost saving seems to be the concern of the air ambulance industry in recent times. While there are several resources like the hangar and quality maintenance that cannot be contained, there are certain aspects that technology can help with. Fuel efficiency and route mapping are among those. In fact, the two are closely connected to each other, especially when it comes to long-distance air ambulance evacuation. Let’s dive into the factors that affect the two and how technology can help the air ambulance industry in this regard.
Air Ambulance Industry and Fuel Efficiency
Contingency fuel itself can be a source of fuel wastage for the air ambulance industry. Wondering how? It’s a no brainer – lesser weight translates to lesser fuel. Contingency fuel is usually carried to meet any unforeseen circumstance that can compel medical flight to be on air for a longer period of time.
If there was a mechanism where any adverse conditions can be predicted beforehand, the need for contingency fuel can be negated completely or at least reduced to a huge extent. The approach would help greatly.
Another aspect is flight route. Often, air ambulances are compelled to change their flight path or flight at varying altitudes due to changing weather conditions. Actions like these accelerate the fuel burn pace. If this uncertainty can be taken away, route planning becomes more efficient where the medical flight need not be on air for longer times than necessary. Needless to say, this increases the fuel efficiency and as a consequence, cuts associated costs.
How Technology Helps
Satellite connectivity in real time can help to a huge extent to plan the routes, but this is nothing new to the air ambulance industry but connect analytical algorithms to weather data and you have something new. The combination brings to the table the ability to predict weather and plan routes even better.
The United States is a country that takes pride in its capitalistic foundations and private equity is a big part of it. Making America great are the enterprising individuals who have found new business avenues and turned their fortunes. In this context, one questions whether the same outlook must be adopted towards the air ambulance industry. Today, the industry is mostly run by firms that leverage private equity to keep floating. However, that comes as no surprise. The medical flight industry is one that sees high demand. It is natural that businessmen want to invest in it.
Air Ambulance Industry and Rising Costs
While the country has not seen high inflation, air ambulance industry has witnessed a steep rise in its costs – thanks to the ever-evolving safety measures and cost a good deal. In addition, there is the need to keep the staff well trained to tackle new equipments. On top of all that, maintaining high standards is not enough, accreditations that stand as evidence to the quality is essential, which again is a cost. Factors such as these are pushing the prices of medical flight services quite high today, to the extent that – without insurance coverage – they are almost impossible to afford.
Prevalence of Too Many Players in the Air Ambulance Industry
The air ambulance industry today witnesses several new entrants. The existing ones too are expanding at a tremendous pace. All this could be leading to an oversupply. However, oversupply is a two-edged sword. It increases the cost that ‘idle time’ attracts. In turn, this pushes the cost of each unit (read cost of each flight) higher as each unit now has to cover higher costs. This could be compelling the air ambulance industry to charge its customers high prices, something that the insurance industry has not been willing to foot lately.
The expectation is that the oversupply balances itself out eventually as the unprofitable ventures close down, and ultimately, a perfect market condition prevails.
The air ambulance industry has often cited the Airline Deregulation Act whenever questions have been raised against its billing practices. It is obvious that most people are curious about this act that precludes the states from interfering in the matters of the medical flight industry.
The law was originally passed in the year 1978 with the intent of keeping the prices of commercial flights low and to promote a healthy capitalistic competition. Prior to that, the commercial airline industry was seeing a lot of monopolistic moves and the prices were quite high. The Act was quite successful and the primary reason why we see highly competitive prices in the commercial airline market even today.
How did it Affect Air Ambulance Industry?
The credit goes to the air ambulance industry that has successfully argued they too are in the business of commercial flights and, therefore, the states cannot interfere in the matters of their pricing. However, like all industries, there are bad players in the air ambulance industry too. They have leveraged this act to charge incredibly high amounts to the customers. The issue has now catapulted to the extent that it has caught national attention. Some experts believe that strong lobbying of the industry is even influencing federal decision makers.
The Argument against the Air Ambulance Industry
Many believe that air ambulance industry must not be treated as commercial airlines. Instead, medical flights must be treated as public health utilities. Part of the argument is also that the congress – while formulating the act – would not have imagined that the air ambulance industry would interpret it the way it has been at this point. Also, the main intent was to keep the prices competitive and not soaring as is the case today. The air ambulance industry too, on the other hand, has a valid point. It points fingers at the insurance industry, which is known to deny out-of-network coverage.