The qualifying standards for being a medical flight pilot are quite high and require thousands of hours of flying experience. Besides, there are license requirements, night flying experience, and so on. The list is quite extensive. Most medical flight companies have their own hiring standards. If you are wondering why that is so, here is the answer. Medical flight pilots often have to work in extreme conditions and experience can come in handy in such situations. For instance, landing a helicopter in the middle of a busy highway, navigating between power lines and other obstructions can be quite nerve-racking. Only experience can come to the rescue in such scenarios.
Single-Pilot Medical Flight
The most common of the configurations among medical flight aircraft are single-pilot. The crew usually consists of a nurse and a paramedic along with the pilot. This necessitates that the pilot is a good team player. Often, he or she may need inputs from the crew members when it comes to visibility, especially during low light to avoid cables and other obstructions. The medical flight pilot must be able to verbalize the need for input clearly keeping in mind that advice is being sought from unqualified and non-technical personnel.
Working in Shifts
Medical flight services are usually open for service all hours of the day throughout the year. This means that the pilot will have to work in shifts. Besides, some medical flight service providers expect the pilots to work in staggered shifts where the first few hours could be in the morning and the rest, later in the day. There are also instances where medical flight pilots are expected to work seven days straight, 12 hours each and then take off the entire next week.
It goes without saying that the work-life of a medical flight pilot is quite exciting but it does come with a lot of responsibilities.
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.
Medical flight membership programs have always been around, although not many have been very popular. Now, with the regulations surrounding surprise medical bills, medical flight service providers are thinking of new ways to stay afloat. Will this mean that membership programs will be redesigned by most of them? It is a question that has remained unanswered, but something that the industry must look at closely.
The disconnect between medical flight service providers has been that they do not honor each other’s memberships. This leaves the members with limited options, wherein they are confined to availing services only from a few medical flight services. In emergencies, they may end up hiring any air ambulance service.
Will the Medical Flight Service Providers Come Together?
This is a big question that has remained unanswered so far. However, the medical flight industry has much to gain if this becomes a reality. Imagine how convenient it would be if one membership would cover all the medical flight services across the country and even across borders. Members simply would not have to worry about the cost. All they would need to do is pay an annual membership fee and the whole family would be covered.
Will Memberships Continue to Remain Popular?
It is likely that medical flight membership programs will gain in popularity. This will be the case even if there is an end to surprise billing. The reason is this: non-emergency medical flight services may still demand out-of-pocket payments. Having a membership can negate this issue. It is for this reason that medical flight memberships will continue to retain their utility. Plus, with the pandemic still not under control, air ambulances can come in handy, especially if it involves flying huge distances for appropriate treatment. The one factor that will continue to retain focus is the acceptability of memberships across service providers.
The COVID-19 situation has caused a lot of problems throughout the country. The treatment expenses sometimes are very huge and the need for treatment highly urgent. A family from Central Florida was in one such situation. A family member had contracted the COVID-19 infection and was on a ventilator. The hospital that he was being treated had conveyed to the family that the patient needed to be transported to a more appropriate facility. The family had then contacted a medical flight company to transport the patient. The cost of the flight was going to be over USD 16,000 and the medical flight company had helped the family set up a GoFundMe page.
The Medical Flight Service was Not Availed by the Family
There are two versions that are currently going around. The family, on its part, revealed that they had canceled the medical flight due to certain apprehensions and the constant demand from the medical flight company for funds. They had arranged for another air ambulance service and had conveyed it to the first company. However, they later found that about USD 8,000 was withdrawn from the fund by the medical flight company.
The Version of the Medical Flight Company
The medical flight company said that the family was insisting that the patient be transported despite the treating physician not giving permission to do so. For this reason, the flight had to be rescheduled. Further, this had gone on for quite a few days. They revealed that, ultimately, they had got a text message that they no longer needed the medical flight service and the patient’s family had stopped responding to their attempts at communication. In fact, the air ambulance company had already arrived, ready to transport the patient when the cancellation was conveyed through the text message. Due to this, the air ambulance company had charged the family USD 8,000.
Although the congressional bill that seeks to ban surprise billing is not limited to the medical flight industry, much has been made out about it. The bill will span the entire medical industry including doctors and medical service providers. Since the bill is Federal, it will apply to the medical flight industry too. However, this long-drawn bill was seen as a battleground with insurance providers on one side and the rest of the medical fraternity on the other. Who won the battle? This was the question that most people were asking at the end of it all.
It was a Balanced Bill with No Defeats
The main source of contention was the fixing of prices for various medical services. The insurance industry was bent on fixing it according to their prevailing rates, which, frankly, were outdated. On the other hand, the medical fraternity, including the air ambulance industry, wanted the government to consider its price list. However, it was widely believed that the list consisted of highly inflated prices. Realistically, it was never expected to be accepted even by those who were advocating it. The congressional bill has skilfully navigated between the industries to ensure that all involved parties get a fair deal.
Medical Flight Services Get the Option for Arbitration
The dispute about medical flight bills has always been between the insurance and the air ambulance industry. However, common citizens have borne the brunt of it. Now, however, the bill will introduce a mechanism for arbitration between the two parties so that they can sort it between themselves and leave the patients out of it. This will ensure that no patient gets a surprise medical flight bill even if the provider is out of network. The bill goes on to suggest protection for those without insurance too, in case of health emergencies. The way forward, it seems, is coming to a consensus for both industries.
A bill concerning the surprise billing practices of the medical flight industry might bring a solution soon. The insurance companies and the medical flight industry have been in the midst of a heavily fought battle around this. Both parties have time and again blamed each other for the high air ambulance bills that patients receive. Such developments have also resulted in bad press for both the players. However, bringing the air ambulance industry to compromise on its billing practices has so far seemed impossible. This is mainly because the states have little control over them and the Federal Government has been sitting over it for quite some time.
The COVID-19 Situation and the Medical Flight Bill
The COVID-19 pandemic had definitely delayed the passage of any bill related to surprise billing practices of the medical flight industry. However, it now seems that it may be passed along with the COVID-19 relief bill. Politicians have intervened to get both parties to find a middle ground, but it has largely been unsuccessful. Both the industries have not budged from their stand but it must be noted that most medical flight service providers have tried to get into insurance networks in recent times.
What Will the Bill Do?
The Federal bill will prohibit medical flight service providers from charging the patients directly for their services in the event that they are out of the patient’s insurance network. This is mainly being done as any patient, during critical times, has no time to contemplate the choices. On the question as to what would happen when a patient wilfully chooses an out-of-network medical flight, he or she might have to pay out of pocket, but there are restrictions. The medical flight service provider can only charge the patient if the patient is given 72 hours to analyze the costs. The patient’s consent to use the services in such instances is also important. If the bill goes through, it could change the landscape of the medical flight industry.
Medical flight maintenance is a systematic process and is guided by the industry best practices and rules that govern the air ambulance industry itself. Then, there is a multitude of aircraft models that demand the maintenance of different degrees. The main difference is rotor-wing and fixed-wing medical flight vehicles. The rotor-wing medical flight services are usually deployed in hard-to-reach situations like rescuing a stranded adventure seeker or a victim of a motor vehicle accident on the highways. The fixed-wing medical flight services, on the other hand, come in handy in long haul flights were the patients need to be carried for hundreds or even a thousand miles. Most medical flight companies maintain a mix of both.
Each Medical Flight Demands a Different Kind of Maintenance
Bell, Airbus, Hawker Jets, King Airs, Cessnas, Lear Jets – the list of aircraft that medical flight service providers maintain is quite huge and each comes with a different need. On top of that, there is a myriad of medical equipment that goes into each of these medical flights such as ventilators, intravenous fluid infusion equipment, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, defibrillators, and many more. Added to this is the decontamination and sanitization protocol over the existing ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All this translates to a huge amount of maintenance.
Allied Maintenance is Also a Factor
The hangars, training, and accreditations are just a few of the allied maintenances that come along with medical flight services. Each aspect demands specialized skills. In addition, emergency professionals need to be trained on an ongoing basis to keep up with the latest development in the industry.
All these aspects lead to better care and improved outcomes; however, they come at a cost. This is one of the reasons why medical flight charges are pretty steep, and without insurance, affording such care can be quite difficult.
Innovations in the medical flight industry are exciting, to say the least. The penchant for doing something new is always is never missing. The industry is known to encourage innovations that make medical flights more efficient, safe, and cheap. Treading this exact line is the newest innovation that stems from Australia. Capable of carrying four passengers at one go, this new medical flight can zoom at speeds of 186 miles per hour but that fact is not what makes it so special. This scientific wonder can fly a distance of 155 miles on battery. If you felt that was an impressive distance, digest this: it can go up to 500 miles on a hydrogen power train. Impressive, isn’t it?
The Uniqueness of the Medical Flight
Fitted with a total of eight propellers, the medical flight is capable of vertical takeoff and is considered to be safer than traditional helicopters. Made of carbon fiber for lightweight as well as sturdiness, the innovation is capable of transforming the medical flight industry. The company which makes this aerial vehicle, AMSL Aero, is developing it in conjunction with CareFlight to cater to the industry. Along with its high energy efficiency, it also produces less noise, which means patients will be more comfortable traveling in it.
The Cost is Much Lesser
It is believed that maintaining and running this medical flight will cost as little as a car in the future. Moreover, it can be flown with or without a pilot. Once in the market, the air ambulance will be the answer to healthcare access for rural communities, which are currently facing a shortage of hospitals and depend on medical flights for access to appropriate medical care in the urban areas. Moreover, it has other applications too. It can be deployed to put out the forest fires that are such a problem the world over today.
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.
Medical flight crews are at the frontline of the COVID-19 battle. While these brave men and women are tirelessly working for the good of patients, the fact remains that it is taking an immense toll on their mental health. The working conditions have drastically changed – sanitization and donning of PPE are necessary at every step. Not just that, there is the constant fear of contracting the infection and eventually passing it on to the loved ones. Torn between the sense of responsibility towards the society and to their families, medical flight crews are under tremendous pressure today. However, help is not far for such individuals.
Medical Flight Companies Recognize the Need to Help
Medical flight companies around the world are formulating policies that offer help when the crew members need it the most. Offering counseling and professional mental health on particularly tough days is one such effort. Also, companies are keeping an open line so that the frontline workers can seek help when they need it. Some of them are even going to the extent of preparing questionnaires to assess the mental status of the healthcare workers who constantly take to skies in tough situations.
William and Kate’s Foundation is Leading the Way
The two royals have been regularly advocating for the medical flight industry in the United Kingdom. Their efforts have been targeted at the mental health of frontline workers too. Now, they have set up a fund of British Pounds 1.8 million that will help this cause. The idea is to include the frontline workers as well as those affected heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their organization will lend a helping hand to 10 chosen charitable entities. Access to peer-to-peer support and mental health resources is among them. The effort will surely help when the anxiety level among medical flight crews is perhaps at its highest.