Features February 2014 Issue

Comparing Medivac Services

Is contracting air-ambulance service right for you?

Members of the all-volunteer VISAR (Virgin Islands Search and Rescue) team practice transporting an injured sailor. While an air-ambulance service can provide peace of mind, everyone on board a cruising boat should have basic first-aid training.

Editors note: Although we recognize that only a handful of our readers ever venture to remote regions of the planet, we know that many dream of doing so. The advent of affordable satellite communications has introduced an array of medivac and telemedical services for remote travelers that were impractical only a few years ago. We decided to find out more about these services. Because a balanced test seemed impossible, we submitted detailed questionnaires to three principal providers, and tabulated relevant information that could be used for comparison. As each company spokesperson indicates, which service—if any—suits your proposed adventure will depend on a number of individual factors that you will need to discuss with prospective providers.

Imagine you’re sailing off the coast of Patagonia, Africa, or Indonesia, when a crew member complains of abdominal pain so severe it could be a sign of appendicitis.

Knowing appendicitis can be fatal if left untreated, the captain uses his satellite phone to reach the pre-contracted service in the United States that provides medical advice, air-ambulance service, and remote evacuation, if needed.

Since the boat is several hundred miles from land, a helicopter won’t be coming to the rescue. Besides, hoisting a seriously ill or injured person from a sailboat is dangerous business for all involved. The company operations center says it can arrange a medical flight once the patient is ashore. Meanwhile, the ailing sailor must be stabilized while the boat heads toward an acceptable harbor. And even then, the nearest surgical hospital where Western-style medicine is practiced will likely require a long, bumpy road trip.

As this emergency unfolds, the skipper must decide on a course of action that will, in many respects, be predicated by decisions made weeks or months before setting out on the expedition— when captain and crew met with the contracted company’s staff of emergency medicine, communication, and survival experts. The meetings were essential because while evacuation by air might be part of the service contract, implementing one isn’t always possible.

Such pre-planning can include the assembling of comprehensive medical kits capable of addressing a wide range of sicknesses and injuries, from broken bones and lacerations to dental emergencies and malaria. The most useful kits are stocked with prescription drugs matched to the medical conditions of those aboard. These drugs are commonly used to treat asthma, high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease, or diabetes.

Some remote evacuation companies employ ex-military personnel—often Navy SEALs and Army Rangers—to oversee assembly of these medical kits, provide crew members with emergency medical training, and teach them how to operate the satellite phone and other communications equipment aboard. After all, there may be circumstances like the one described in which the company cannot deploy rescue personnel to the location due to distance, weather, location, or war, so the thoroughly equipped and trained sailor stands a better chance of survival. That’s where the importance of telemedicine enters the picture.

Although the technology behind telemedicine is rapidly advancing, it’s still not a matter of pushing a button to activate a two-way video transmission in real time between the sailboat and a team of doctors. It’s not Star Trek—at least not yet.

Practical Sailor recently took a look at a handful of global companies that offer telemedical and medical evacuation services for those sailing the less-developed parts of the world. The first step to deciding if membership to a medivac service is right for you is to assess your needs, cruising area, and ability to address medical emergencies or injuries on your own.


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