How Does an Air Ambulance Work?

In the US, there are more than 131 million emergency room visits every single year. While many patients arrive in their personal vehicle or via a ground ambulance, some require an air ambulance instead. Overall, among patients transported by a medical transport craft, around 1 in 4,000 privately insured patients and 1 in 350 Medicare patients travel in an air ambulance.

While air ambulances aren’t uncommon, they aren’t as familiar as their ground-based counterparts. Here’s a look at what an air ambulance is, the equipment it has, and more.

What Is an Air Ambulance?

Functionally, an air ambulance is the airborne equivalent of a ground ambulance. Typically, the category includes two types of aircraft: helicopters and airplanes.

Regardless of the vehicle type, air ambulances aren’t typical transports; they have specialized equipment designed to assist individuals experiencing medical emergencies or with particular health-related needs. Additionally, some of their staff members are medical personnel, such as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), nurses, or medical doctors. That’s what puts them in the broader category of being an ambulance.

What Equipment Is in an Air Ambulance?

Air ambulances may have different equipment onboard depending on their specific functions. However, most contain patient-monitoring and ventilator systems, as well as defibrillators, transfusion equipment, and IV pumps.

Intubation equipment is commonly on board, as are resuscitation systems. They’ll also have a variety of emergency medications and may hold medications explicitly selected based on the needs of the patient they’re carrying.

When Do People Need Air Ambulances?

Air ambulances are needed mainly in three situations. First, they’re commonly used to transport patients with severe injuries after accidents or similar emergency medical events, particularly if the nearest hospital capable of handling the injury or illness isn’t in the immediate area. Second, an air ambulance — especially a helicopter — can potentially reach areas where ground vehicles can’t, so they’re brought in during rescues involving non-drivable terrain.

Plus, when patients in critical condition or those who are otherwise not fully stable must transfer to different medical facilities to receive necessary care, they may travel by air ambulance. Often, this occurs because the hospital they’re at initially doesn’t have the right services or professionals available to manage their condition effectively, and air transport is often faster than ground-based alternatives.

However, an air ambulance is potentially appropriate in other situations, too. Those outlined above are simply more common.

How Do You Pay for an Air Ambulance?

Generally, there are two ways a person may pay for an air ambulance. The most common one involves leveraging their health insurance. Many policies have some level of coverage for air transportation that’s deemed medically necessary. While there may be a copay or similar out-of-pocket expense, using insurance helps minimize it.

Otherwise, patients without suitable coverage usually have to pay the entire cost out of pocket. Whether that’s paid in advance or after receiving care depends on the exact situation. When an air ambulance is called in due to an accident or similar emergency, the patient may be billed after the fact. For non-urgent or optional air transport, paying in advance is potentially required.