The aviation industry has grown immensely over the years and transportation has become faster, easier to access, and more reliable. It’s proven its efficiency and effectiveness for various segments, be it passenger transportation, cargo, military, sports, tourism and within the medical field.

One of the segments that is usually overlooked within South Asia is the air ambulance sector, which can play a vital role in the relocation of patients during medical emergencies. Air ambulances can provide rapid and safe transport for those in need of urgent care or from areas from normal modes of transport that might not be accessible. Air ambulances can either be in the form of rotary-wing helicopters, fixed-wing turboprop jets, or even passenger flights can be outfitted to accommodate patients requiring medical attention. Depending on the state of the patient, air ambulances are equipped with appropriate medical supplies, machines, kits and medications. Besides the pilots, they will usually have room as well for an air ambulance certified paramedical staff, along with a critical care nurse, one accompanying partner, or other medical experts, as necessary.

Aside from being able to provide rapid transport to an appropriate medical facility for care, air ambulances can also bring much-needed relief to those seeking medical emergency transports when they are travelling/visiting other countries that might be far away from their home country. Air ambulance provisions are usually embedded within travel insurance policies, which are linked up with assistance companies that help a patient and their travelling companion, if available, to manage the logistics, paperwork, and medical care necessary across the duration of the transportation back to their home country.

Based on current lifestyle trends, analysts indicate that the expectancy of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular and diabetes are only expected to increase within the Indian subcontinent over the coming years. In developed countries, during emergency situations associated with these conditions, air ambulances are highly sought after as every minute can count in hope of saving lives. Inevitably, the rapid rise as well of overall global healthcare spending has created various technical and infrastructural demands and developments. In 2013, the per capita healthcare spending globally was around $8.5 trillion and is expected to exceed $20 trillion by 2045. The increasing spending is only expected to boost the global market for healthcare, including the air ambulance industry, over the coming years. Within the global air ambulance industry specifically, the segment is expected to grow from around $4.89 billion at current to over $10 billion by 2030.

While aforementioned that the sector is still overlooked, in regards to its potential in the subcontinent, this is not to say that there have not been successful operators and stories within South Asia. From rescuing victims in the remote and inaccessible territory, such as the Himalayan range, facilitating timely organ donor transports, to providing world-class patient and accompanying partner care and hospitality, there are some private and public-private ventures within the region, that have proven their notable capabilities. These include recent Assistance Partner to the International Assistance Group, Air Dynasty Heli Services in Nepal, the International Critical Care Air Transport Team, and Hiflying LLC in India. Numerous success stories of air ambulance services in South Asia also encouraged the government of Bhutan to operate an Aeromedical emergency retrieval team in the country, with hopes therein of expanding the services further.

While the cost of air ambulances can seem prohibitive, it is surprising to note that under various health insurance and travel insurance schemes, there are provisions by which the costs of such transportation could be fully covered. It is important for employers and travellers to ensure that the type of insurance plan they acquire, meets the requirements of their respective itinerary.  Health insurance programs, be in domestic or travel, are only increasing in availability and use. Medical emergencies can occur anywhere and anytime and having the proper health insurance plan can help to alleviate the concerns regarding costs for transportation and treatment during an emergency. The costs will also vary by the type and route the aircraft will have to take, the condition of the patient, the availability of resources, and how urgently air transportation is required.

The impact of Covid-19, while having had a negative impact on the travel and aviation industry, ironically helped to bring spotlight attention to the value of air ambulance services. As people worldwide sought to seek better health insurance protection, air ambulance services were being included as part and parcel of premium insurance coverage packages. During the height of the pandemic, services were even being provided by traditional airline companies, who were seeking revenue sources to make up for the loss from traditional transportation schedules as people demanded this type of service and the costs became competitive and affordable in nature. Similarly, the state of lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed across states and respective countries in the region, in a manner forced the medical emergency operation to look at air ambulance service as an alternative means of getting patients from one hospital/location to another when the medical need arose.

The future of the air ambulance industry in South Asia and Asia is only forecast to grow further, with the former designated to become the fastest growing region in providing this type of transportation and medical care during critical medical situations. Particularly of note is the expectant rise in India and China, which have both been attributed with significant investments to the industry. It can be noted that media reports in late 2021 indicate that within India there are plans to scale up and provide infrastructure for further helicopter services nationwide. The Civil Aviation Minister, Jyotiraditya Scianda, particularly emphasized in the release of a new Helicopter Policy in the country, that the sector was particularly useful for those in need of urgent medical transport following vehicular accidents.

Furthermore, in India, the driving force of the medical tourism industry has brought about increased demand for this type of service and air ambulance companies are continuing to emerge. This is creating a more competitive market and is resulting in positive outcomes, while there is still large space for growth and other players to get involved. As businesses, travellers, and customers in South Asia seek to have faster and more competent transportation options during emergency situations, the role that air ambulance services will play will hopefully become more efficient and enhanced while keeping the costs to customers affordable.

In the context of operating businesses and travels in South Asia, it would be prudent for travel and risk managers to ensure that insurance plans have the backup provision of air ambulance services. Additionally, it would be wise to ascertain the area of operations and travel resources, as the need to preemptively prepare with an air ambulance company might be necessary. While there are many places in South Asia that can be considered developed and accessible, there are also numerous locations for business and travel that can be challenging areas to access should an emergency occur. To this extent, planning ahead and knowing the right sources for air ambulance services could be the difference between life and death and should be part of any serious duty of care program. While in the past this industry might have been overlooked in South Asia, air ambulance services are here to stay and only expected to grow immensely. Travellers and businesses operating in South Asia or anywhere should be knowledgeable of their respective insurance programs and access the services of such air ambulances companies should the need ever arise.

 

 

Ray Lyngdoh
Regional Consultant - India & South Asia
International Assistance Group