Every year, over 400,000 medical flight evacuations and rescues take place in the United States and each ride can cost up to $25,000. Going by these figures, it is obvious that the market potential is huge. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by private equity investors. It is, therefore, no surprise that the country has over 75 medical flight companies that have about 1,500 air ambulances. A big number no doubt but it also means that the market is competed out by these numbers. Now, add the burden of increasing security standards and the profit margins begin thinning significantly.
Medical Safety Standards Constantly Evolve
When you look at the number of medical flight accidents that take place, it is certainly much smaller than the road accidents that we witness every day. That’s because the safety standards of the industry are quite high. The reason behind this is the constantly evolving safety benchmarks laid down by institutions like the Federal Aviation Administration of the country. These agencies make it impossible for medical flight companies to adopt a lax attitude towards safety. They simply cannot fly without following the specified safety standards and defying them or trying to break the rules can result in license suspension, financial penalties and more.
Regulations are an Incentive for Safety
Regulations not only govern safety surrounding the customers, but they also cover the crew members. For instance, any medical flight taking to the skies in the evenings or in a bad light must equip its pilots with night vision technology. Coming to the cost of safety, this is one area where the medical flight industry is left in the lurch. The increasing costs are not given due consideration by the insurance companies forcing the medical flight companies to put the burden of payment on the end consumers.
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.
Sounds a little odd that medical flights are a part of F1 racing, right? Not when you look at it closely. The safety rules surrounding F1 necessitate that any injured driver receives treatment within 20 minutes. However, it is impossible to get treatment at that speed without the involvement of medical flights. In fact, air ambulances are always on standby during the races. Not just that, they are kept ready even during practice sessions. Any time the medical flights are not able to function due to one reason or the other, the race itself is canceled. Such is the importance attached to the availability of quick reach to treatment and air ambulances are a big part of it.
The Recent Unavailability of Medical Flights during Practice Sessions
The practice session was recently canceled at the Nurburgring track. The reason was the inability of medical flights to function due to adverse weather conditions. The track is prone to thick fog during certain times of the year, and this is an obstacle to operate air ambulances. Recently, two practice sessions were abandoned due to this reason. The fans that were there to watch their favorite sports stars were in for a disappointment.
Change in Protocols to Maintain Safety
The third session of the F1 practice session was held with a few changes in the protocol without compromising safety. Land ambulances were kept handy in case of emergencies. They would transport the injured to a certain distance where an air ambulance would be stationed and ready to go to the nearest appropriate facility. The medical flight was parked in a location where the weather conditions were congenial. The entire protocol was designed such that the evacuation would still be possible within 20 minutes. Of course, if the weather clears up, there would not be a need for the new protocol at all.
The life of an air ambulance pilot is risky with weather conditions that transform without warning and the ongoing COVID-19 situation. However, it is not impossible to take precautions and prepare for them. Then, there are mindless pranks that are played by miscreants not fully comprehending the repercussions of their acts. One such act is shooting laser lights at air ambulance pilots. Recently, a Wiltshire air ambulance pilot was subject to one such prank that left him temporarily unable to see and the landing had to be aborted. Just imagine being pilot mid-air, in a situation where visibility is suddenly near-zero. Scary, isn’t it?
The Air Ambulance Pilot’s Family is Scared for His Life
The wife of the air ambulance pilot has appealed to people through a video that was posted on one of her social media channels. The woman breaks into tears as she appeals to people to refrain from shooting laser beams at pilots. The pilot is also a father of twin girls. His wife conveyed through her heart-wrenching video message that she loves her husband very much and hopes to see him walking his daughters down the aisle someday.
She Called to Ban Laser Lights
Laser lights can travel up to 50 miles. This humongous range brings almost all aerial vehicles within its range. It is hard to understand why such a tool must be put in the hands of the public. Laser lights are quite affordable and can be bought for as little as a few dollars. The woman has appealed to the government to pass rules that prohibit the sale of this item.
The pilot in question was on a training mission when the incident occurred. However, had it occurred during a live mission, it would have to be aborted putting the patient’s life at risk owing to delayed treatment.
Medical flight professionals play an important role in offering life-saving services that range from triaging to offering emergency medical care on the spot and during transit. However, it must be observed that they perform these tasks in enclosed spaces with limited resources, both in terms of equipment and personnel. Rapid decisions and medical interventions are all a part of their daily routine. There is a constant need to keep in touch with medical experts on the ground. That’s not the end of it, the crew is expected to maintain a clear record of what has been done so that the transfer of care is smooth and seamless.
Best Practices for Medical Flight Professionals
The foremost thing to do is inform the receiving hospital about the status of the patient. If he or she is suspected of COVID-19 infection that must be made apparent. Even in the absence of a clear test report, if the patient is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, it is best to keep the receiving hospital informed. This is especially important as the protocol to receive a COVID-19 patient varies when compared to other health conditions. The practice can save several valuable minutes and appropriate care can be quickly provided upon landing.
Personal Care is Important
It is not possible to drastically modify most if the medical flight choppers to accommodate COVID-19 patients. Being in an enclosed space without a clear separation between the crew and the patient increases the risk of infection. However, PPE (personal protective equipment) offers an effective shield in this situation. It is reported that the PPE can be uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time, but it should not be a reason to compromise safety. Also, all mandated sanitization protocols laid down by the CDC and other government health agencies must be strictly adhered to.
If you are a patient who is in a medical serious condition and fighting for life, would you be okay with an air ambulance professional who is fatigued and has been working a shift of almost 24 hours? Would you perceive this condition to be grave for your life? Although air ambulance personnel these days are not expected to work abnormally long hours, this fact is something you should know about. In this context, one must note that 24-hour shifts were a practice, if not common practice, prior to 1997. We bring you a research conducted in this regard by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, which is a part of National Center for Biotechnology Information, a US Government undertaking.
The Findings of the Report were Astounding and Contrary to Popular Belief
The primary objective of the research was to assess the psychomotor agility and skill performance of the air ambulance personnel when they worked 12-hour shifts versus 24-hour shifts. The data gathered pertaining to 24-hour shifts belongs to the pre-1997 era. The data collected was compared with times when the air ambulance industry was mandated to work for limited number of hours as against the time when shifts spanning 24 hours were not alien. Intubation – a critical task that is undertaken routinely – was used as a scale to measure the efficiency of the air ambulance professionals. Surprisingly enough, there was hardly a difference between ‘overworked’ professionals and the ones who worked reasonable hours.
How Do Air Ambulance Professional Manage to Work at Optimal Efficiencies?
The answer may lie in the fact that failure is not an option when lives are at stake. No matter what the level of fatigue, when people who are driven by passion and compassion are put in a situation where the outcome depends on how they perform, the chances are they will try their best and come out winners. The fact is also an ode to the dedication of the professionals belonging to the air ambulance industry.
As an air ambulance provider, it is your responsibility to ensure the safety of your staff. This is particularly important for your medical flight paramedics, because there is a high possibility of them getting injured. We’ve even highlighted some of the causes of injury in two of our previous posts. So in this post, we’re going to discuss some of the ways in which you can improve workplace safety and prevent injury among your staff.
Enhancing Equipment Safety
The first thing you need to look at is your equipment. If you went through the previous posts, you would have seen that medical flight paramedics are commonly injured while lifting patients. So the best thing to do to prevent such injuries is to replace your traditional manual cots with powered patient transport equipment.
These will significantly reduce the physical strain on your paramedics. In turn, this will reduce the likelihood of experiencing injury. You could install assisted loading systems that will support the cot and make it easier for paramedics to load and unload patients onto the aircraft.
You should also equip your aircrafts with safety equipment that your paramedics can easily access when needed. This would include safety masks, gloves, and gowns to protect them from exposure to harmful substances.
Enhancing Medical Flight Safety
In addition to enhancing the safety of your equipment, you should also consider the safety of your aircraft. Whether you’re operating fixed-wing aircrafts or helicopters, you should do a thorough maintenance that will ensure optimum safety for your crew.
Have proper storage systems installed for your equipment, so that paramedics can easily access them when needed while at the same time preventing the equipment from exposure. And make sure you have a routine check of your engines and inbuilt flight equipment.
RVSM is an abbreviation that stands for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum. RVSM-approved medical flights must be fitted with certain gadgets such as autopilot and certified altimeter. These medical flights are allowed to fly 29,000 feet above the sea level.
RVSM allows aircrafts to fly maintaining reduced vertical distance between each other; thus, paving way for more medical flights to share airspace simultaneously and safely. While this may seem quite technical for a layman, there are other distinct advantages of flying above 29,000 feet. It brings speed, comfort and safety. Let’s discuss the importance of RVSM, especially with long-distance medical flights.
Safety of Medical Flights and RVSM
Safety is always the primary concern when you choose an air ambulance. Medical flights coursing at lower altitudes are more susceptible to turbulence. Such turbulences can cause unnecessary anxiety in the patient which is not advisable when the condition of the patient is critical or the patient is already anxious about his or her health.
Speed of Medical Flights and RVSM
Time is always of essence when choosing an air ambulance. Medical flights flying at higher altitudes fly quicker and burn lesser fuel. This means that the air ambulance does not have to stop frequently for fueling. Circling the airport, landing, fueling and resuming flight can be quite time consuming and RVSM approved medical flights avoid/ reduce such hassles greatly.
Comfort of Medical Flights and RVSM
The reduced chances of turbulence, when flying at higher altitudes, make travel comfortable for the patient. The difference in comfort level is not too great but for a patient who has a fragile health condition, the small difference can mean a lot. There is also the peace of mind that comes along when you know that the aircraft carrying you will take lesser time.
Cost is always a consideration when choosing medical flights. The fact that a RVSM approved aircraft burns less fuel could translate into lesser costs for you.