Monday 20 November 2017

'Hospital in the sky' on a mission to get patients home safely

First-class medical care in the air is a critical part of the service provided by AeroMedevac for people who fall ill or are injured overseas

FLIGHT PLAN: Keith Trower, left, founder and chief executive officer of AeroMedevac air ambulance service, with Sean Gallagher.
FLIGHT PLAN: Keith Trower, left, founder and chief executive officer of AeroMedevac air ambulance service, with Sean Gallagher.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

FEW of us who go abroad on holidays or for business ever imagine that we might suffer a serious illness or be involved in an accident which would require us to travel home for medical care.

However, those who unfortunately do find themselves in such circumstances will be relieved to know that founder and CEO of AeroMedevac, Keith Trower, spends his time helping people make it back home to Ireland safely.

In 2010, Keith set up AeroMedevac Ireland as an air ambulance service which he describes "as a hospital in the sky".

Based at Dublin Airport, the company operates as an aero-medical transport business where specially trained doctors and nurses escort patients on their journey home, either in the company's specially adapted jet or on standard commercial flights, depending on the severity of a patient's condition.

"Many of our patients are too ill to travel on a standard commercial aircraft and many require to be transported in a lying down position," Keith explains.

Patients who require critical care or specialised medical treatment and supervision throughout a flight can be assured that the company's dedicated Cessna jet has been fitted out with specialised equipment to enable it to effectively operate as an ICU or intensive care unit in the sky, complete with a flight stretcher and a full assortment of medicines.

"We don't have the comfort of having the support structures of a large hospital when we are in the air so all our medical staff must have the skills and experience to deal with all eventualities for patients on journeys that may be up to eight hours at a time," he stresses.

While patients differ greatly in the severity of their conditions, to date those who have been transported home by AeroMedevac include people who have suffered strokes, heart attacks, respiratory problems and head and spinal injuries. In addition, the company provides medical transport flights for children and infants.

"We also look after people with serious medical conditions who need to transfer to a hospital in another country in order to avail of treatment which is not available here in Ireland," explains Keith.

Similarly, the company provides transport for patients from other countries who have been injured or taken ill during their time here in Ireland and who need to be flown home to their respective countries for treatment or recovery.

While a typical air ambulance repatriation flight on the company's jet will normally cost between €10,000 and €20,000, Keith points out that the cost of transporting someone back home to Spain or Poland for treatment in their own country is often better for the patient, and more cost effective for the health service here than keeping them in a hospital bed in Ireland for an indefinite period.

Over the years, Keith and his team have seen every type of medical challenge. But his first mission is the one he remembers most. A young Irish woman had become seriously ill while in Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam. She had already been hospitalised there for six weeks when her family began raising funds to bring her home for care in Ireland.

"I was incredibly proud to see an Irish team arrive in Vietnam on Christmas Day to bring the young woman home," he tells me. In particular, he was touched by the family's relief when they saw an intensive care nurse arriving with their daughter en route to a Dublin hospital.

From that moment on, Keith knew that the work he and his team were doing was not only important, but was making a real difference in people's lives.

The company has now carried out over 100 air ambulance flights to and from more than 30 countries around the world including Spain, Greece, Turkey, Iceland, Poland, Morocco, Dubai, Egypt, Kenya and the US.

"Our business is all about people," stresses Keith. The company currently employs five full-time staff. In addition, it draws from a panel of doctors and nurses who are selected for each trip based on the specific needs of the patient and the medical speciality of the panel member.

"For the staff, it's all about the patient," says Keith. "Our staff and medical panel are hugely committed to helping provide care, comfort and security to patients and families at a time when they may often be in distress and at their most vulnerable," he stresses.

In financial terms, the company has experienced steady growth over the past three years and Keith is hopeful that this year he will see the business break even when it reaches an annual turnover of almost €1.5m.

It's an impressive achievement given the cost of establishing such a high capital intensive business.

How did he come up with the idea in the first place?

Originally from Dublin, Keith studied geography and geology at Trinity College before moving to the UK to take up a job with oil giant BP where he worked for the following 18 years. He then spent 10 years in the healthcare insurance industry where he gained considerable experience in the transport of patients.

When he returned to live in Ireland in 2010, he set his sights on starting a business based on this experience. Having spoken with a multitude of medical practitioners, he discovered that there was no dedicated air ambulance service based in Ireland.

He then undertook a detailed feasibility study which helped determine the size of the market opportunity. Keith also began recruiting a panel of doctors and nurses and developed a specific training programme on how to take care of patients while aboard an aircraft.

His biggest challenge, however, was that the company had no track record in the Irish market, which up to that point had been served by providers based in the UK and Germany.

He immediately set about establishing relationships with organisations such as the HSE and Crumlin Hospital in Ireland, the NHS in the UK and a host of healthcare assistance companies across Europe and the US as well as developing relationships with Irish insurances firms such as VHI Healthcare.

While the business was initially located at the Weston Airport outside Dublin, Keith quickly realised the need to relocate to Dublin Airport in order to be able to provide 24/7 availability. Today, he has a roster of four pilots on hand at any time.

"Aircrafts are expensive," Keith explains and so too is the extensive medical equipment required for their missions. However, the availability of aircraft leasing made it possible to set up the business for approximately €1m. He received start-up support from Enterprise Ireland as well as receiving investment from a small number of Irish business angels who had a keen interest in the medical and aviation sectors.

For the moment, the company competes against other non-Irish providers but he is hopeful that the public will continue to support a local Irish company.

"We need to continue to raise awareness among the public of the availability of our service and we also need the ongoing support of the HSE and Irish insurance providers in order to sustain the future of the business here," Keith explains.

Keith Trower returned to Ireland three years ago with the dream of starting a new business. With considerable experience in the healthcare and insurance sector abroad, he undertook a detailed market analysis to determine the potential opportunity for his air ambulance and medical escort service.

In the face of one of the most challenging times in our economic history, Keith and a small number of committed investors took the brave decision to invest their money in a vision to establish what they saw as a much needed service locally. He set about recruiting the best medical team possible and has since committed himself to establishing and maintaining the highest levels of patient care and safety.

In talking with him, it is clear that he loves what he does. The positive feedback he receives from grateful patients and their relatives makes his work worthwhile.

Saying goodbye to Keith, I tell him that I hope I never need to call on the services of AeroMedevac. However, should I ever find myself or a loved one in need of medical transport assistance, I'd be very happy to know that I was in the safe hands of Keith Trower and his expert team.

Sunday Independent

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