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COVID-19 wave has had a huge impact on the air ambulance business: Piyush Narang

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Piyush Narang, CEO and co-founder, QuickAir Ambulance explains to Viveka Roychowdhury why he believes that they are here to save lives in critical conditions and even though the air ambulance industry in India is still at a very nascent stage in India, they have become a basic segment of the advanced medical services framework of the country, more so during the current pandemic.

A year into the medical transport business, QuickAir Ambulance has reportedly executed 1500+ trips with an on-time rate of 98.5 per cent, including 500 evacuations dealing with patient transfers, organ transfers, medicine as well as human remains transfer. So how does it deliver on its promise to provide emergency medical transport support at the right time and at the right price? 

Narang explains the challenges faced by his start up air ambulance services company, their membership model, the medical technology and human expertise that goes into operating an air ambulance and how some life changing cases during the current COVID-19 pandemic reaffirm their commitment to make this service more affordable across the country

 How common are air ambulances in India? Is there a demand supply gap, especially during COVID-19?

The air ambulance industry in India is still at a very nascent stage with supply only limited to the situation and a few geographical boundaries. In India, there are make-shift air ambulances, those which are just available because of the emergency and have not yet become an industry norm. It is primarily because of the huge expenses involved. The airlifting process isn’t cheap, and it even requires a lot of documentation for the patients to be airlifted. Both time and money pose as the biggest challenge in India and are the reasons why air ambulances are only in demand in extreme emergencies.

How did you hit on the idea of setting up an air ambulance service in India, after a career in the aviation industry? 

I have been the aviation industry for as many as 15 years and I have had those experiences where a patient’s family would do anything to get the money for their treatment. They would sell their jewelry or even property as a desperate measure to save their loved ones. These experiences are why we set up QuickAir Ambulances. The idea behind QuickAir was to have something that could be well within the means of a common man, one which would be easily approachable and economical.

What were the challenges of setting up such a business?

As I said before, air ambulance industry is very cost-intensive, for patients as well as for the providers. It requires a lot of investment and to be able to provide the services that are efficient and affordable for its end users, the owners usually must bear the entire cost. Secondly, it isn’t easy to make people believe they can be benefited by such technology. So, creating a market and demand for the product had been a challenge for us.

Given that you head the operations team and look after communication with third-party operators, how do you guarantee quality of services, given that these are life and death situations?

Most of it comes from my own life experiences. During my time in the industry, I have successfully evacuated more than 1500 patients and so, I understand the importance of life and death. It is only a matter of few seconds that could prove to be fatal for the patients, which makes this process of choosing the third-party operators more stringent than ever. We are very strict about our quality and efficiency standards only because we have the precious lives in our hands.

What are the USPs of your company given that there are competitors in the market?

At QuickAir Ambulance, we work hard to provide an extremely affordable and cashless air ambulance membership plan that helps our end users with free airport-to-airport transfer in case of an emergency. We have thoroughly studied the market and set up a very competitive and convincing membership plan for our customers.

You co-launched Ambulance in August 2019, what has been the traction so far, in terms of operational spread in the country, revenues, number of patients and organs shifted, etc?

Currently we are focused on establishing a strong customer base, one that believes in our services and considers air ambulance as an important aspect of medical emergencies. We have been creating awareness about the need of it rather than focusing on numbers of counting the number of successful transfers.

Can you describe some of the most challenging cases so far?

There are many. In the recent past, we have successfully shifted several patients and each case teaches us a valuable lesson for our future moves. We once shifted a patient from Delhi to Chennai whose lungs had been compromised and he had a heart stroke with many other medical complications. He was a COVID-19 patient in the recovery, thus, had an extremely critical condition. We had to plan this transfer very meticulously and in coordination with the hospital authorities by the second so that everything falls in place when we arrive. It was a life changing case and we come across such cases very often, leaving us in awe with our work and business. We are here to save lives in such critical conditions.

What is your business model, how have you made your offerings more affordable for different customer segments like patients, hospitals, etc?

We have carefully curated the set of services and membership plans for the hospital network and patients, respectively. With our fully equipped air ambulances, we offer patient transfers, organ transfers, medicine and human remains transfer. Our operations care center handles the logistics to carefully transport everything and everyone on time. As far as our membership plans are concerned, we have one for each, individual and family at very affordable rates.

Can you give us an idea of the average cost of the service? 

There is no average cost for a medical airlift as it depends upon the distance between the two geographical locations. We have cashless air-lifting services to our members in the times of need.

You indicated that the air ambulance business involves a lot of documentation. How does the company collaborate with hospitals, state governments, etc? 

Airlifting process requires a lot of paperwork and approvals from the state as well as hospital authorities. However, our users opt for our services at the time the situation is critical and road transfers cannot help, which makes the coordination with the authorities smooth. The departure hospital, destination hospital and the doctors, all of them understand the sensitivity of the situation and make the boarding easier for the patient to be stable and get transferred safely.

What are the company’s expansion plans? 

We plan to expand exponentially in the next one year by opening our offices in multiple cities and broadening our fleet of aircrafts. What we have done so far is only the tip of the iceberg and we have lots more in store for the industry and our customers.

As a start up, who are your current funders and do you plan to approach more funders for the scale up process?

We are a self-funded startup and we’ve been blessed with the friends and family who have supported us, financially and emotionally, and trusted our instincts of getting into an industry that is still fresh in India. We would definitely like to approach more like-minded investors in the future.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic change the air ambulance industry and how did QuickAir Ambulance cope?  

The COVID-19 wave has had a huge impact on the air ambulance business. Today, people have become more conscious and aware of their healthcare. On the other hand, it has made our job slightly tougher than what it was already. Operators like us need to be more cautious now, since we have to ensure our patients don’t contract the virus as the chances of them getting infected are higher with their critical conditions. This increases the time of preparing the aircrafts for the transfers and thus, requires us to act faster than we already do.

How is technology changing the contours of the air ambulance sector in India and globally?

Innovation in the medical healthcare sector combined with expanding tendency towards quicker and proficient methods of transportation are helping the air ambulance industry grow bigger and stronger. The air ambulances come with cutting edge clinical facilities, gadgets utilised in emergencies, to give prompt clinical consideration to the patient until they reach the closest hospital.

In addition, air ambulances have trained clinical experts to treat patients in crisis while they are on board. They are technologically efficient in addressing the issue of long travel time and lacking the ability to reach distant areas, which are two of the major challenges faced by road transport. In this manner air ambulances have become a basic segment of the advanced medical services framework.

What is the projected growth of the air ambulance sector globally and in India?

As of now, Asia has the least penetration in the air ambulance industry of the world even though 50 per cent of the world’s population resides in this continent. This shows the kind of potential that we have in India and around.

What are the career opportunities that open up in this sector?

The healthcare sector and medical transport sector are inseparable. Having said that, the current global crisis has exposed the need for better and expanded hospital services along with the need for a bigger healthcare workforce. Thus, as the healthcare sector grows, the need for more air ambulances will arise, requiring more infrastructure. Hence, a combination of all of this will ultimately give rise to employment opportunities in all of these sectors exponentially.

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