Time is of the essence when working with clients to arrange an international medical transfer. Air ambulance providers must deliver clear, accurate quotes to ensure that missions are completed without mistakes, and so clients know what they are paying for. And when a life is on the line, accuracy needs to be balanced with expediency. But where is the line drawn between detail and a rapid turnaround?
Lines of communication
For Tom Hienckes, Business Development Manager for European Air Ambulance (EAA), ‘communication is key’ when it comes to ensuring that quotes are both accurate and expedient.
“The more information we, as an air ambulance provider, receive upon first contact, the less we have to investigate and chase,” he explained. “Communicating effectively and having a good provider-client relationship avoids inaccurate quotes. It also saves precious time to the provider – and, most importantly, the client.”
‘Communication is key’ when it comes to ensuring that quotes are both accurate and expedient
Despite this, Hienckes admitted that ‘sometimes, a quick follow-up phone call’ with clients is necessary to iron out any remaining outstanding questions, ‘be it on an operational or medical side’.
Hienckes added that ‘to break down some language barriers and avoid miscommunication’, EAA primarily delivers its written communication in English – however, ‘we can offer our clients the service of speaking French and German as well’.
Mike Vallee, Vice President of Business Development at Air Ambulance Worldwide, agreed to a point, arguing that ‘we always prefer to receive too much information rather than too little’ – and that ultimately ‘the accuracy and inclusiveness of the quote will depend on the quality and accuracy of the information contained in the payer’s request’.
However, he added that due to the time-sensitive nature of the business at hand, his firm tended to prioritise a rapid response to clients over having every detail ironed out. “When a request comes in, we pride ourselves on responding with a quote within 30 minutes.”
Devil in the detail
Hienckes said that when dealing with clients, ‘we ask our customers to send as much information as possible upon first contact’.
“There is no ‘hierarchy’ of information as such – but there are a few key pieces which are required,” he explained, with the timeframe of the repatriation being most critical. “We need to check the availability of aircraft, flight and medical crew, [so] a specific date often helps prepare an accurate quote.”
Vallee agreed that while a high level of detail is good to have, the information provided by clients varies in format and content, according to both the specific tastes and methods of the clients and the minutiae of the case itself.
“In a perfect world, we would love to receive a standard email quote request that was identical across the industry,” he said. “But we understand that our clients have their own preferences, and as such they have their own formats, and in some cases their own platforms that require inputting of information to submit a quote.”
However, he added that, ‘as always’, the ability to provide a swift, accurate quote is ‘predicated on having the minimum required information’.
“We understand that often a payer is simply requesting a quote from several providers to tick a box in their check list when a case is initiated at their end,” Vallee explained. “This means that it might not make sense to provide
detailed information at the onset of a case, but more accurate and detailed information at the start equals less work or misunderstanding downstream. Priorities are: location of patient, destination, diagnosis – including any conditions that might affect the flight planning, such as height above sea level. Any matters related to a patient’s ability to enter the country and any issues with receiving care.”
Hienckes advised that clients should make use of phrases such as, ‘must move within 24 hours’ or ‘as soon as possible’, to help providers, such as EAA, judge the case urgency.
He added that as well as timescale, having the specific location of a patient was essential to providing an accurate quote, due to the necessity of choosing the closest airport for operation. Additionally, ‘we prefer to have a full medical report before sending the quote’ – offering the ability to judge whether, ‘for example, a sea-level flight is required, [or] an extra medical crew or special equipment are needed’.
“In order to carry out the mission, we require the bed admission, doctor and hospital contact details, preferably with ward or department information … to know if a ‘bed to bed’ service or ground transportation should be in in the quote, or if we can expect a tarmac delivery/pick-up, as this can impact the planning and price of the mission,” he added.
Other potential details that are good to know up-front include whether additional passengers should be expected, and the amount of luggage being taken.
Tech can accelerate processes, but oversight is key
While both Hienckes and Vallee said that elements of their quote processes were digitised in some way, both argued that the involvement of humans was irreplaceable in ensuring that quotes were accurate.
“As far as digitalisation of quoting goes, we run all of them on our quoting platform – which is part of our wider flight planning and dispatch system – and many of our clients have contracted rates that allow the system to populate the quote automatically, based on flight distance/duration,” explained Vallee. “However, we still validate flow-through costs like anti-ice/de-ice and hangar space for overnight stays.” He added that his company was currently in the process of migrating its quoting processes to a new platform, provided by Skylegs.
Hienckes agreed, arguing that while ‘most of the quoting processes at EAA are digitised’, his company is still ‘convinced that a quote always needs manual input’.
We still rely on the extensive expertise of people. No hardware or software can ever replace … know-how
“There are too many moving pieces involved in an air ambulance mission, that just leaving the quoting process to a computer system … is too risky for us,” he said. He added that EAA’s Operations Centre was staffed all day, all week, with at least two flight dispatchers and a medical regulator. “Each of them gives an individual input before a quote is sent to our clients,” he explained. “Hence, despite most of the process being digitised, we still rely on the extensive expertise [of people]. No hardware or software can ever replace … know-how.”
‘Slow is smooth and smooth is fast’
Ultimately, both Vallee and Hienckes agreed that while getting quotes to clients as fast as possible was a priority, the need for care and accuracy was paramount. In the event of poor information gathering, or an inaccurate quote, disaster could result for both the client and the air ambulance operator.
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” explained Vallee. “Said another way – urgency can negatively affect accuracy – and neither aviation nor medicine lend themselves well to substandard procedures.”
Vallee added: “If a client urges us to call out a flight crew and start the pilot duty clock before we’ve checked whether the airport has any issues that would affect the mission, the ultimate responsibility rests with us – our team members are the experts that clients rely on for guidance in this area.”
Hienckes agreed, saying: “Of course, we always aim to provide the quotes to our customers as fast as possible, [but] on the other side, we want to ensure that the quotes given are as accurate as possible.
“It is an everyday challenge to balance between speed and accuracy of the quotes. In the end, EAA tends to prioritise accuracy before speed,” he continued. “We prefer to spend a few additional minutes on evaluating and checking in detail each request and provide our customer with a quote that
If quotes are sent out too fast and end up ‘not doable or feasible’, then an air ambulance provider’s reputation and perceived reliability is at risk
He added that, ultimately, if quotes are sent out too fast and end up ‘not doable or feasible’, then an air ambulance provider’s reputation and perceived reliability is at risk. Overly hasty quotes can also present a commercial question mark for operators. “The risk of over-quoting and losing a booking, or under-quoting and securing it, but at a financial loss, is very real,” Hienckes said.
“As we take over medical responsibility during the transportation of the patient, we are also assessing the medical reports in detail before we decide that a patient is fit to fly. On the other hand, we need to be careful that if we spend too much time on a quote, our clients are also waiting and may look for a swifter response elsewhere,” he concluded.