Why Are Air Ambulances Gaining Popularity In India?
An air ambulance is basically a helicopter that is equipped with specialized medical equipment, medicines and flight stretchers, and is used to transport patients to a hospital. Air ambulances generally have a highly trained team of paramedics on board to handle the specific needs of patients being transported by air.
Air ambulances are generally called for when a patient is in a very critical condition and is located at a place that does not have any hospital close by.
Air ambulance service in India
Air ambulances are increasingly becoming popular in India, especially in parts of the country that lack connectivity to hospitals in big cities.Today, many of the biggest hospital chains in India, such as Apollo, Fortis and Max, have their own air ambulance services. Emergency ambulance services run by hospital chains are expensive, as they charge anything from Rs 65,000 to Rs 85,000 per hour, but for many, they can make the difference between life and death.
There are a number of freelancers who operate these services as well, at a discount over what is charged by the major hospitals. Ever commercial airlines have entered the fray and have started air ambulance service programs of their own.
Demand for air ambulance service
The demand for emergency ambulance services in India is so high that it has attracted many international companies into the country as well, such as Air Medical Group Holdings (AMGH), which is the biggest privately-held provider of air ambulances in the world. AMGH has tied up with an Indian company, Aviators Air Rescue and it offers its services at a much lower rate in India than what it charges in North America and Europe. While there is a complete unanimity among those involved in the healthcare industry that India needs more air ambulance services, the fact is these services are still very much in their infancy in India.
In the West, especially in the United States and Canada, there are hundreds of air ambulance providers. In India, the oldest air ambulance operator is probably OSS Air, which started its services in 2011.
Views on air ambulance service in India
- Phillip Devasia, who works for Med-Trans Corporation, a unit of AMGH says, “Simply put, we are the best possible option for a person in the worst possible situation. It is critical for India to take this step in emergency medical services. This is a country of 1.2 billion people, and even if 1%, or 12 million, use our services, it will be a step in the right direction.”
- As Mr. Devasia explains, there are several places in India where the roads are hard to negotiate for road ambulance services, and for critically ill or injured patients in these places, an air ambulance service is often the best recourse. “India, which has over 60 million people with cardiac diseases, over 0.5 million road accidents annually where at least about 0.1 million deaths are reported, immediate medical attention is needed. Although ambulances such as 108, 103 are being added, infrastructure across healthcare, road, transportation is still has a long way,” he adds.
- Srikanth Muthya of Philips Healthcare agrees: “Air ambulance is the need of the hour. This is primarily driven by the fact that over 70% of rural population has limited access to good healthcare facilities. With technologies enabling transportation, and access to information becoming more affordable, air ambulance will follow a path of being affordable.
Limitations on air ambulance service in India
Air ambulance services have been very expensive and beyond the reach of the middle class and the poor in the country. They are mainly used by industrialists, celebrities and politicians.
OSS Air, for example, charges between Rs 1.3 lakh and Rs 1.6 lakh per hour for use of its emergency ambulance services. Max Healthcare charges even more, Rs. 2 lakh per hour.
India has no program such as Medicare or Medicaid as in the US which can provide for these services. In the US, a vast majority of the population can access these services as they are covered by the various medical insurance programs, which are part-funded by the government. So, although an air ambulance service in the USA costs $18,000 (Rs. 11.70 lakhs) per trip, much of the expense is borne out by the insurance provider or by government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid. This is the big difference between air ambulance services in India and the US.
Efforts undertaken for air ambulance service
AMBH-Aviators has been doing its bit to make air ambulance affordable to the middle class in India. They have introduced a subscription scheme, under which anyone can subscribe to their air ambulance service by paying Rs. 18,000 per year.
A family of four can use this service for Rs. 30,000 per year. So, any time there’s a medical emergency, subscribers can call upon the AMBH-Aviators air ambulances without paying anything extra for them.
This is an impressive model for air ambulances in India, and it is expected that other companies will follow suit and introduce an affordable yearly subscription for their services. Although the rates are low, the service providers can make up through volume.
What about the demand for air ambulance services?
According to RajanGhadiok, director (medical operations), Fortis, there is a lot of demand for air ambulances from the residents of Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities in India. He says, “Air connectivity has really picked up. There is a lot of revenue sitting in smaller cities. In the last one year, we have had patients from as far as Khazakistan and also from Indian cities like Lucknow, Jammu and Amritsar. We had picked up an infant from Lucknow and a three-day-old baby from Jammu recently. We feel that the services will gather momentum if the charges are brought down.”
There are, however, a few regulatory hurdles for such emergency ambulance services in India. The rules in India still do not allow air ambulances to land wherever they like.
The companies operating these services need to get clearances from the police, army and other government departments, which creates an unnecessary bureaucratic bottleneck in the process. Once these problems are resolved, one can expect air ambulances to become more common in India, as they should, as they can potentially save a lot of lives.