Category Archives: International

Risky Business – Weighing Things Up

The excellent Dr Paul Bailey returns to provide more practical insights from the bit of his work that involves coordination of international medical retrieval. This is the second in (we hope) a recurring series which started here

Greetings everyone, it’s a pleasure to be back for the long awaited second edition of this humble blog. Looking back at my first foray into this unfamiliar world I’m pretty happy with how it reads and I think that it worked out well. If any of you have questions, I’m happy to participate in a bit of to and fro in the comments section.

Where to from here? I thought we might talk about risk. It’s hard to know exactly where to start, but it is fair to say that there are clinical risks, aviation risks, environmental and political risks – and there are probably more but I can’t think of them right now.

Aviation risks are the domain of our pilot colleagues and it’s extremely fair to say that they do a great job. One of the reasons that flying is so safe overall is that pilots specifically (and the aviation industry more generally) take risk very seriously. This might well have something to do with the personal consequences to the pilots of getting it wrong, I’m not sure.

When was the last time, for instance, that the nurses or doctors amongst you had to consider your fatigue score whilst working for a big hospital? What is the mechanism by which you might stop work when you consider yourself impaired or too tired to work any longer? Random drug testing at work anyone? If you’re a doctor or nurse, not likely, unless you are also working in aviation. See what I mean?

Whilst on a job the clinical team are considered part of the crew and whilst it is certainly within our job description to point anything out to the pilots that looks odd – it is up to the pilots to get us there and back safely. One of the Gods of CareFlight said to me once that it was his considered opinion, having been in the game a while, that if the pilots don’t want to go somewhere – for whatever reason – then neither does he. I reckon that is a pretty good rule of thumb.

What about medical risk?

Preparing for an international retrieval, the risk assessment starts straight away. From the Medical Director’s chair, we attempt to have a clinical discussion with SOMEONE close to the patient, usually a doctor or nurse in the originating hospital. This can be difficult – sometimes there are language issues; sometimes standards of care might be different to what we are used to; sometimes it’s just the time of day. How many people would be able to give a comprehensive medical handover at short notice in your hospital at 02:30?

We can also discuss the case with a nurse or doctor from the assistance company as an alternative. Sometimes it is even possible to talk to the patient or their relatives and in fact this is often the best source of up to date information.

It's a pretty long hallway you're looking down to assess the patient.
It’s a pretty long hallway you’re looking down to assess the patient.

In a similar way, patients’ clinical condition can change in the substantial lead time between the activation of a job, your arrival at the bedside and the eventual handover of the patient to the next clinical team.

In the world of international medical retrieval, if the patient is still alive by the time you get there, it is likely that they are in a “survivors” cohort already and will very likely make it to the destination hospital intact. If death was considered imminent, it is unlikely the assistance company would go to the lengths of setting up an international medical retrieval. Sepsis is probably the grand exception to this rule – patients who are septic have progressive illnesses that are not improved by being shaken up in the back of an aircraft.

The summary is that sometimes the information is incomplete, may be in fact be wrong in spite of the best efforts of the Medical Director, or may well have been correct at the time but things have moved on. It’s best to keep an open mind about what you are going to.

Ways to Ruin a Dinner Party – Bring Politics and the Environment

Easy to understand in some ways, and hard to define on paper are the environmental and political risks associated with international medical retrieval.

Some locations are potentially dangerous on a 24/7 basis and it can be a matter of choosing the “least bad” time of day – eg daylight hours – for you to be on the ground, and to make that period of time as short as possible – eg by arranging the patient to meet you at the airport. Sometimes the situation will require the assistance of a security provider. Port Moresby would be an example of a location where any or all of the above statements are true.

Different standards apply in some locations and it can, for instance, be necessary for all fees and charges associated with a patient’s hospitalisation to be paid prior to their departure. Retrieval team as bill settlement agency.  Indeed, sometimes these fees can be very complex and quite difficult to understand. The hospital administrators may not be sympathetic to your timeline with regards to pilot duty hours and a strong wish to depart.

Some counties in our region have relatively new or potentially unstable political situations and this might come into play from time to time. East Timor is a perfect example. It is also possible to find yourself in the thick of a countries political situation in the event that a government official or politician becomes unwell and requires evacuation to a location with a higher standard of medical care.

Just one example - expect the unexpected.
Just one example – expect the unexpected.


So the risk is there, what do you do?

In the end, it is not possible to control for everything that could go wrong on a retrieval. The essentials are to be well trained, have the right equipment with you (it’s not much use back at the base), work with good people all of whom are doing their jobs properly and keep an open mind about both the clinical and logistical situation as the case progresses.

So here are some principles we try to follow from the coordinators end:

  • We will not send you to an uncontrolled situation.
  • We will endeavour to have you flying in daylight hours wherever possible.
  • We will do our best to give you a comprehensive medical handover prior to departure and discuss things that might go wrong.
  • The pilots undertake to get you and the patient there and back safely.

And my suggestions for those on the crew?

  • It is vital to maintain situational awareness and to understand that the world of international medical retrieval is fluid and things change – you don’t have to like it but you do need to respond.
  • Good communication is essential – within the clinical team, between the clinical team and the pilots and between those on the mission and the coordinator (not to mention the local organisers). Good communication is your best friend and keeps you, your team and the patient safe.

Until next time …

Thoughts from the Control Tower

This is the first of what we hope will be a series of posts from Dr Paul Bailey who works as a Medical Director for CareFlight International Air Ambulance. Paul will try to provide insights into the challenges of managing retrievals across oceans. Here’s the starter. 

In his real life, Paul Bailey is an Emergency Physician based in Perth, Western Australia who dabbles in the Greyhound racing industry (having owned 10 dogs and never been to the track).  He can often be found in the outer at an Aussie Rules football oval, most commonly critiquing the performance of the umpires in an entirely constructive manner.  Past lives include a molecular biology PhD – in Jellyfish venom – don’t ask – and being a glassy in various drinking establishments in Western Australia. 

 Paul has previously undertaken international retrievals, helicopter work supporting Australian Army exercises and time with Queensland Rescue at Cairns. He now makes cameo appearances on the International Medical Director roster, as a medical director for retrievals in the NT and the Inpex oil and gas business.


If you’ve decided to be involved in retrieval, why think local when you can think global? After many years of toiling through school, then medical school, and then advanced training in the acute care specialty of your choice, you’re now in the hot seat ready to go.

Living the Dream

You’ve always fancied yourself as an airborne medico ever since you sat on your Dad’s knee watching “The Flying Doctors” in the late ‘80s and thinking how cool that would be. Truth be told, you also liked Top Gun and from time to time have drawn a laugh with the immortal line: “Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full.” But you still buzzed the control tower anyway.

Fly Past copy

Or perhaps more likely you rode that little bit too close to your Mum on your BMX. You’ve also heard, along the way that everyone in retrieval gets a nickname and you’re tossing up between Maverick and Goose.

Top Gun copy

And it’s safe to say you have bought the Ray Ban Aviators already.


Living the Reality

So what’s it really like? Different to that, not surprisingly.

CareFlight International Air Ambulance (CFIAA) is an ever changing beast, with our clinical teams and aircraft based in Darwin and Sydney. Over the journey we have also had aircraft in Perth and Cairns. Depending on where the team is on duty, they are most likely to be flying between Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Darwin and Adelaide (for Darwin crews) and Fiji, Noumea, Norfolk Island, Sydney and Brisbane if you are based in Sydney. Of course, it’s international so there actually isn’t a spot on the globe that shouldn’t be thought of as up for grabs.

Co-ordinators and Medical Directors sit behind the team at all times and, due to the miracle of mobile phones and the internet can be almost anywhere. Many of these folk never meet in person but are always looking over everybody’s shoulder.

More of that later, in this awe inspiring opening to the series I though I’d start with how it all gets going – who pays for it all?


The People with the Deep Pockets – Travel Insurers and Governments

When your average citizen takes out travel insurance, it is most likely to protect against such tragedies as losing an iPhone overseas, dropping a wallet in the ocean or perhaps finding himself in Vietnam and his luggage in downtown Boston. Having been in this game a while now, it is my opinion that if losing your iPhone is the worst thing that happens on your holiday you’ve had a pretty good time.

Recliners copy

It may surprise you to know that a travel insurance policy is, by and large, a health insurance policy. Greater than 95% of the spend of travel insurance companies relates directly to health costs.

Each travel insurer has a series of service providers sitting behind them, one of which is an assistance company. There are a relatively small number of assistance companies that engage in this type of work. They have 24h call centres with co-ordinators, nurses and doctors (much like us).

In the event that John Q Citizen becomes unwell or is injured whilst they are away – by getting gored by a bull in Pamplona for instance – they or their relatives call the assistance company and a whole train of events unfolds, which might include directing patients towards local health care facilities to help with their medical problems.

The assistance company will maintain contact with the now patient and their family, and depending on how things in the event that the medical issue is of a serious nature, things tend to pan out in one of two ways that relate to the quality of health care available locally and the underlying urgency of the patient’s medical condition.

Let’s focus on the sicker end of the spectrum because clearly many issues are of a minor nature and never come anywhere near us.

If “definitive care” is available locally AND the quality of local medical care is high AND treatment of the matter is urgent assistance companies will usually head down the route of electing to keep the patient where they are for treatment in the theory that that is both (a) best for the patient and (b) cheaper than an international medical retrieval.

If “definitive care” is NOT available locally OR the quality of local medical care is questionable it is then the key decisions become urgency and mode of transport.  There are, again, an array of transport options available but seeing as we are in the Air Ambulance business, again we might focus on that.


Send in the Big Bird

The assistance company, having decided that medical evacuation is required and that this is most appropriately by air ambulance asks its panel of Air Ambulance providers for a quote. At this stage, the available information usually consists of the patient location and their ultimate destination. No clinical information is available.

Our co-ordinator submits a quote, and due to the price of aviation fuel the retrieval company with the aircraft that has to do the least amount of flying to get the job done is usually cheapest. Paperwork is exchanged and the job confirmed.

Clinical information is then available and at this stage the CFIAA Medical Director is brought into the discussion – to liaise with treating clinicians at the hospital of origin as well as the destination unit. How many times is it quick and easy to have a chat with someone you’ve never met in the hospital? Well, it is fair to say that these conversations can be difficult – finding the right person in an overseas hospital at a sometimes odd times of day and surmounting the language barrier is not straightforward.

We are often going to locations where the quality of the medical and nursing staff are excellent but the broad array of diagnostic equipment that many of us consider routine are just not available. Similarly there are many locations where the patient will have a problem that is unable to be treated effectively with the resources available locally. It’s part of the game, and in many ways it’s why we are needed in the first place. A lot of the legwork for the coordinator is about trying to construct a story that is useful for the retrieval team and help plan for every contingency.

So, that’s a summary of all the things that happen before you get to find out about a case. We haven’t even got to the challenges of the actual patient yet.

I might finish off with a thought for the day:

If you can open your packs blindfolded, upside down and in a thunder storm – and know where everything will be, you have satisfactorily completed orientation.