Despite the debate between providers and various authorities, demand for air ambulances is rising. Before hiring an air medical transport, patients and their families should make sure that the operators are licensed and bonded, that the life support systems and other medical equipment meet all requirements and that pilots and medical personnel have the experience necessary to provide for safe transport.
While it has its origins in the wartime transport of injured soldiers, air ambulance services have come to be used by medical facilities everywhere. Thousands of aircraft engage in aeromedical transport, from short-range, rotary-winged flights to more extensive journeys aboard small fixed-wing jets. Air ambulances are available for emergency and non-emergency use, and the costs can be quite high. Services range from basic medical monitoring to airborne surgical facilities. While all agree that safety and uniformity are of paramount importance, the industry lacks the regulation necessary to create equitability between all interested parties. Still, demand for this service is not going away, so regulatory change is inevitable.
An air ambulance has two basic functions: to provide fast transport from the scene of an accident to the appropriate medical facilities in an emergency situation; and to provide timely, sometimes long-distance shuttling of patients from one facility to another. Helicopters provide a more mobile, short-range solution in an emergency. Fixed-wing aircraft, such as private jets, are more suited to long-range trips. However, aircraft in both cases can be outfitted with a variety of life support systems and trained medical staff.
Private medical transport via small jets typically starts with a base fee in addition to the expense of trained staff and mileage. It is not uncommon for an intercontinental medical transport to cost $50,000 or more, although domestic flights are generally much less expensive. Depending on a patient’s insurance coverage, air evacuation might be included but only in emergencies and over limited distances. Fixed-wing medical transport specializes in long-distance movement of patients, most commonly in non-emergency situations.
Onboard medical personnel must be trained and certified according to the requirements of their profession, as well as in operational procedures and in-flight safety. While regulation generally eludes the industry, aeromedical service providers must hold an Operations Specifications Part 135 certificate authorizing them to operate an air ambulance.
The Uniform Fixed-wing Air Ambulance Regulation Project has been attempting to create a cohesive set of rules that coordinates the actions of federal and state health regulators, as well as the FAA, with regards to these medical transporters. But for now, those seeking to utilize these services for themselves or loved ones should look into safety records and customer testimonials before a final decision is made about which service to book.
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