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Good prospects for air ambulances

November 06, 2007 14:15 IST
Ashok Kumar is just back from London. He was there as a part of an air ambulance team that flew four British patients, suffering from altitude sickness, all the way from Himachal. This was his second international trip during the month and fifth, including domestic assignments. 

A former employee of Apollo Hospitals, Kumar started his own air ambulance business three years ago after he found emergency services to be very challenging and lucrative. From a rare case of airlifting, Kumar is finding air ambulances being used everyday, throughout the year. 

With 365 airliftings worth several crores of rupees happening in Delhi in a year on average, it's time for big business, Kumar feels. And he is not alone. 

All major corporate hospitals like Apollo, Max and Fortis have their own air ambulance teams within their emergency departments. In addition to these corporate players are the "freelancers" like Kumar who offer 24-hour air ambulance service for critical patients from all major North Indian cities to Delhi. While the hospitals charge a premium, Kumar takes a cut. 

"None of us, including corporate hospitals, have aircraft of our own. We utilise the services of chartered aircraft providers and convert the six-eight seater planes into ambulances. There are at least three aircraft available in Delhi on a single day and the normal aircraft charges are between Rs 65,000 and Rs 85,000 per flying hour (at 340 km/hr). The service charges by hospitals or agencies like us are extra. So, if a patient in Patna has to be taken to a Delhi hospital, it costs Rs 2.5-3 lakh." Kumar says. 

 However, freelancers offer a discount of around Rs 50,000, as they charge a standard fee (Rs 20,000 in Kumar's case) for their services. 

 Talit Halim, head (emergency care), Max Hospitals, agrees. According to him, all big hospitals have special teams for the purpose and are availing the services of same aircraft owners like Ranair (promoted by Ranbaxy Group), Deccan Air and Ariel Airlines. 

"There are no dedicated air ambulances in India. Basically, we take out two seats from an aircraft and load stretchers and other life-saving equipment. The hospitals charge about 30 per cent of the total expense for doctors and 15-20 per cent for their services. So, a trip to Patna will cost Rs 2.5-3 lakh depending on the size of the aircraft," he says. 

 According to Halim, most patients that reach Max are airlifted from Jammu, Patna, Ludhiana, Allahabad, Lucknow, Jaipur, Kota, Jodhpur, Bhilai and Raipur. "From Himachal a lot of foreigners are taken back due to altitude sickness. Patients from Guwahati and some from Nepal have also availed our facility," he adds. 

 Fortis hospital chain is another major corporate group that offers air ambulance programmes. The company has even announced a tie-up with Deccan to ferry patients. 

 Says Rajan Ghadiok, director (medical operations), Fortis, "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." 

Apollo Hospitals, pioneers in air ambulance programme, have a history of having attended 10 such cases a day. The hospital also claims to have carried out the longest air ambulance service - from Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar islands, to Delhi. 

 As more and more commercial airlines are foraying into the air ambulance service programmes by accommodating stretchers in their aircraft, charges for airlifting have started to come down. 

 With service providers hinting at air-movement programmes that will cost less than Rs 1 lakh, the future for air-ambulances looks bright.

IN A NUTSHELL 

  •  All major corporate hospitals like Apollo, Max and Fortis have their own air ambulance teams within their emergency departments
  • Aircraft charges are between Rs 65,000 and Rs 85,000 per flying hour
  • Freelancers offer a discount of around Rs 50,000, as they charge a standard fee for their services
  • More and more commercial airlines are foraying into the air ambulance service programmes by accommodating stretchers in their aircraft 
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