An Expanding Horizon
MedAire's business grows as airlines realize the advantages of inflight medical emergency support
BY Monica L. Rausch, Associate Editor
PHOENIX, AZ — A woman, 38 years old, is six months pregnant and making a long trip from Cairo to Los Angeles. Somewhere over Omaha, she experiences trouble. In a small room of a Phoenix hospital, a MedLink¨ communications specialist gets the call. "She's conscious, she's six months pregnantÉshe's had what she considers to be a contraction Éand lost quite a bit of blood," reports the pilot.
The crew has asked for assistance from any medically trained passengers on board. A doctor steps forwardÉ
Just off the emergency room at Good Samaritan Hospital, MedLink's emergency medical physicians handle calls like this one daily from crews of corporate aircraft and, more recently, airlines thousands of miles away. In the past, crews usually diverted when confronted with a medical emergency; now they have another option.
"It's a huge economic savings," says Joan Sullivan Garrett, president of MedAire, Inc., the company which provides the MedLink service. "I don't know any airline that isn't willing to land the plane for a medical emergency, any pilot, any crewÉThe problem is that they're not very astute in determining is this a life-threatening emergency or is it not? And frankly, they don't want to take the responsibility. They're not in the position to do that."
By contracting with MedAire, operators can call the MedLink service at any time and talk to an ER doctor who not only gives advice in treating the patient, but also helps determine whether the emergency is such that diversion is necessary. If called for, a MedLink communications specialist uses a database of information on over 5,000 airports to find the nearest airport and hospital.
MedAire started its business focusing on business aviation, but now airlines are starting to see its advantages. Here's how MedAire found its start and where it's going from here.
The missing link
MedAire opened its doors in 1987, and the first "patch"— or dispatch — to a communications specialist was received in November. A man on a charter flight from Dublin was having chest pains.
But before this call came in, a lot of work was done to educate MedAire's future customers — and even its doctors — on the need and value of an inflight medical emergency service. "The big question was could they bring value to these customers," explains Garrett. "Can you bring value from a physician to a lay person? Furthermore, can you get the physician to speak in lay terms? É There's a huge educational curve for physicians to be able to respond to a lay person."
Says Dr. David Streitweiser, an emergency medical physician at Samaritan and medical director for MedLink, "We were skeptical about the value of this service when it was presented to us 13 years ago. We didn't know if it would even work, talking remotely to non-medical people, sometimes talking to ...doctors and nurses who didn't have much in the way of equipment."
But Garrett says her eight years experience as a critical care flight nurse gave her insight into a need she felt had to exist. "Had I not had that experience, I don't think that I would've started this company. I don't think that I would've known what were the key success indicators for saving lives by lay people."
Streitweiser and the other doctors were won over when they saw that their work was actually helping passengers, and flight diversions were dropping. Now one airline reports that in the first month of service with MedAire, diversions dropped 85 percent, says Garrett.
Notes Streitweiser, "Passengers were actually getting more appropriate care, even on the non-diverted flights."