I’m often asked whether it’s useful for assistance companies to visit the operational headquarters of air ambulance providers. I wouldn’t just say that it’s useful. I’d say that without a doubt it’s the best way for assistance staff to fully understand and appreciate the air ambulance provider’s capabilities and how this can benefit their working relationship – and I would strongly encourage all assistance companies to take the opportunity to visit the bases of their air ambulance providers.
Such visits will give you the chance to make direct comparisons between operators, allowing you to see for yourself any differences in quality and understand why prices vary so greatly. Nothing can give you a better understanding of how a particular provider works than by seeing it for yourself. A website can give you pointers, but a smart website really only indicates a good web designer. It’s how the people running and working in the various departments operate in person that matters.
A clean and well-organised working environment is likely to reflect a company that values smooth, successful and well-planned missions
There are so many benefits to paying a visit to an air ambulance base and seeing their operations up close, including the chance to:
- See the aircraft – both their exterior and interior. You can clarify whether they are owned by the company or just used on a case-by-case basis from another company. And how does the interior look? Bearing in mind that this is the only part of the aircraft your patient (if conscious) and their relatives will really see during a repatriation.
- See how clean and organised the air ambulance provider’s base is, as this can offer a revealing insight into working practices and company approach. A clean and well-organised working environment is likely to reflect a company that values smooth, successful and well-planned missions.
- Discover new aspects of the company, such as in-house training facilities, medical wards, and ongoing staff learning programmes. You may not make direct use of these facilities when organising a repatriation, but a company’s commitment to staff and development can be a great indicator of all-round quality; and understanding this can help you see which providers stand above others in terms of all-round service.
- Meet the faces behind the emails and the voices at the end of the phone. It’s always easier to find a solution to a problem when you’ve met the person and built a rapport.
- Talk to people in various departments and get an all-round feeling for the ‘spirit’ of the company. Happy and motivated staff are likely to provide a better service to your patients – with the shared aim of bringing them safely home.
A personal visit will also help you get a realistic understanding of what services the provider can offer and, also, any restrictions there may be in this regard. For example:
- In the medical department – what are the specialisms and limitations? Are there particular patients that the provider is expert at dealing with, perhaps premature babies; or are there patients that they cannot transport, due to practical or staff limitations?
- In the aircraft – is it possible to transport an ICU patient with all the medical equipment onboard plus passengers, or is the cabin space restricted? Is the provider able to be flexible in the onboard medical set-up, or is it a fixed configuration?
- In the maintenance department – what are the regular maintenance schedules and cycles, and how do they deal with unexpected technical problems?
- In the aviation section – what are the operational and duty time restrictions on pilots? Does the company have enough pilots to offer 24/7 repatriations?
A visit to the control centre is also a must. It can offer a valuable insight into how a good air ambulance company can help an assistance company make savings by finding better repatriation options; and how they can help you identify where it might be possible to combine patients. For an assistance company, it’s important to be able to prove to clients (insurance companies, corporate clients, and so forth) that they perform audits and pay regular physical visits to providers. It shows that the vetting process of their providers is taken seriously and this increases trust in the assistance company.
- Ahead of a site visit, I’d recommend preparing the following:
- A list of important questions you want answers to.
- A note of the specific departments and people you want to meet.
- A list of official documents and company procedures you want to see.
- A review of any major or complex repatriation cases you’ve had with the provider so that you can discuss them during the visit.
I’d also recommend that a range of assistance company staff are involved in the visit, as it’s likely to be beneficial to all levels of staff. For the CEO/CFO/top management, it can give a better understanding of the business in general, including why an air ambulance is so expensive and why it’s necessary to invest the money in quality. It can underline the risk involved in ‘cutting corners’ and perhaps taking a cheaper option and that, ultimately, losing a patient and ending up in a lawsuit is far riskier and more expensive.
For the assistance company sales team, it can really help to see first-hand the air ambulance repatriation product they will ultimately sell to their clients. A deeper understanding of the company and its processes is likely to impress clients, who’ll see the quality of the air ambulance company as an asset to the assistance company. Meanwhile, the operations team will gain a better understanding of a partner they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. It will build relationships and smooth out operations and, therefore, make them more effective and cost-effective.
I would urge all assistance companies to ask to visit their air ambulance providers in person – a good provider should welcome the opportunity to show how they work. After all, the focus for all of us is providing the safest transit to patients and the best service to clients, and we can do that best when we forge good relationships and work together.