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Meeting Nigeria’s health emergency demands with Flying Doctors

By Adaku Onyenucheya
20 December 2018   |   3:45 am
Until now, Nigeria, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), has one of the worst health indices in the world. In fact the country was rated 187th out of 191 WHO member countries. Also, Nigeria is ranked 74th out of 115 countries, based on the performance of some selected health indicators by the World Bank.…

A Flying Doctor examining some medical gadgets

Until now, Nigeria, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), has one of the worst health indices in the world. In fact the country was rated 187th out of 191 WHO member countries.

Also, Nigeria is ranked 74th out of 115 countries, based on the performance of some selected health indicators by the World Bank.

The Nigeria’s rate of infant mortality (91 per1000 live births) is among the highest in the world.

Several studies have shown that one of the major problems contributing to poor healthcare delivery in Nigeria- most of the morbidity and mortality experienced on a daily basis- is lack of a functional Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

According to medical experts, part of the challenges limiting the successful implementation of the EMS include: the distance of major health facilities, which are far away from the rural communities; poor road and communication network; lack of vehicles to convey patients in emergency state or critical health conditions out of the area; lack of medical equipment for resuscitation among others.

The experts argue that due to these circumstances, hundreds of thousands of patients across Nigeria die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence, the need to protect the health of the teeming population of Nigeria by investing more funds in EMS.

Minister of State for Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, during the launch of the National Policy on EMS, said Nigeria needs an estimated 5,000 ambulance units and operational funds for efficient implementation of the National Guidelines for ambulance service.

This, he said would address the current inadequacy of about 1,000 registered ambulances in both government and private operations, which are insufficient to achieve the desired average response time for Nigeria’s population and road network, noting that it is shocking that most of the available ambulances are not connected to an emergency network and may be used for purposes other than emergencies.

However, improving EMS would provide timely care to patients with the overall effect of reducing morbidity and mortality as well as the population’s ability to access healthcare system, trained human personnel, appropriate dispatch and financing mechanisms.

As part of efforts to address the challenges of EMS in Nigeria, which has led to the poor state of health, air ambulance services has been identified as one of the solutions to help bridge the gap between geography and advanced healthcare.

This has led to the introduction of Flying Doctors Nigeria (FDN) Limited, a EMS that specialises in air ambulances, medevac, medico-logistics services, remote site medical solutions services, medical infrastructural development and medical training services.

With its Head Office at the International Airport in Lagos, FDN operates stations manned by specially trained medical doctors across the country from where real-time responses are affected.

This is to ensure high quality medical solutions to meet all requirements.

According to the Founder and Managing Director, Dr. Ola Orekunrin Brown, Flying doctors offers a range of healthcare services to meets the need of Nigerians, which include: Air ambulance / medical repatriation, infrastructural services, Emergency Transport Unit (ETU) / medical stretcher services, remote site medical solutions, emergency medical assistance services and ground ambulance services among others.

Brown said FDN has since its 10 years of operation supported and encouraged Nigerians to embrace this means of transporting critically ill patients and those in painful medical condition.

She said the firm has saved lives across the West Africa sub-region, including infants, children, and pregnant women. Corporate organisations, such as those in the construction, mining, oil and gas industries, have also come to depend on the services of FDN.

Brown, who was born, raised and trained in the United Kingdom (UK), is a medical doctor, helicopter pilot and healthcare entrepreneur. She leads a team of 50 emergency healthcare professionals from the FDN base at Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, where their aircraft is located.

Brown told The Guardian that she is dedicated to bringing trauma care to the most remote parts of Western Africa and her company, an air ambulance service based in Lagos, is doing just that, adding that she was motivated to start the company after her younger sister tragically died whilst traveling in Nigeria as a consequence of no medical air service available to transport her to hospital.

Brown who is also a member of the American Academy of Aesthetic Medicine and considered a national expert of disaster medicine and pre-hospital care said she has joined all her expertise in Nigeria to save lives of those in dire need of emergency services.

On her team of healthcare professionals, she said: “All our doctors are trained to international standards and hold Trauma Life Support qualifications (ATLS, PHTLS) equivalent to those held by aero-medical personnel in the UK and Australia.

“We adhere to the highest standards of medical practice as our air ambulance cases are reviewed both internally and externally and held to the highest clinical practices at all times.

“We operate by international quality standards with which all our staff are trained and re-trained. Also, our doctors and paramedics are constantly drilled in various training schemes to keep the organisation on the international cutting-edge of emergency medical practices.”

When asked on the equipment in the air ambulance and how the company sustains lives, Brown said: “ The Flying Doctors Nigeria air ambulance contains all the equipment normally found in an intensive care unit.

It is a flying intensive care unit. The equipment room at the Flying Doctors Nigeria office complex at the airport is complete with ventilators, infusion pumps, monitoring machines and even a pacemaker.

“Air ambulance aircrafts look the same as private jets from the outside. But on the inside they have medical stretchers and equipment, loading devices and baby incubator.

“The ETU is a medical cabin that fits into the Arik plane on a scheduled commercial flight. The ETU section is cordoned off to allow for patient privacy. It is an advanced custom designed unit that can transform a small section of a regular commercial flight into an intensive care unit in just 10 minutes.

“The ETU takes up just six economy class seats in Arik made perfect sense. It is up to 90 per cent cheaper to transport a patient than a full air ambulance. This will ensure Nigerians get optimal quality healthcare services.”

She said Flying Doctors Nigeria plan to invest over $10million in the next five years in the sector, across West and Central Africa on new aircraft, operations, medical equipment, staff training and medicines expanding access to the most remote parts of the region.

She said the air ambulances reduce the cost of any healthcare system and increase the quality. “Air Ambulances reduce the need to build new specialist hospitals; saving billions of dollars. They also ensure that specialist skills can be concentrated in certain hospitals; called centres of excellence but remain accessible to the entire population.

“It will also reverse medical tourism and how the current administration has made getting visa’s on arrival for sick patients arriving after being flown in from Mali, Chad and other countries within the region easier.

Brown said a Nigeria’s most pressing healthcare problem such as child/neonatal mortality is also part of the solutions brought by the Flying doctors.

She said many babies die in Nigeria, even compared to conflict affected areas like Syria and Iraq and how to prevent it remains a huge burden in the country.

“Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child. Many babies die because they cannot access specialist care in the correct timeframe. Children and babies with complex medical problems must be treated in specialist facilities, which may be many hours or even days away by road.

“Air ambulances provide an essential transport service for these kids. Furthermore, air ambulances decrease the need to continuously build hospitals, as it makes the existing hospitals more accessible.

“If fewer hospitals are built, more money can go into primary care helping children with more basic healthcare needs as well. This is essential. Most of these deaths are preventable. We must find ways to increase spending on primary care,” she maintained.

She noted that the “Babypod”, one of the only units in the whole of West Africa is a baby transport device that was developed using the same advanced technology used in the famous Formula 1 racing cars, to keep premature babies safe, warm and comfortable during air ambulance transportation when they are critically unwell.

She, however, added that a specialist pediatric and neonatal team performs these transports at FDN ensuring that critically ill babies have the best chances of survival in a region where the odds are often stacked against them.