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Air ambulance vs Ground ambulance: which one is better for you?

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Air ambulance vs Ground ambulance: which one is better for you?

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There is an ongoing debate about whether patients in need of care should be transported by an air ambulance or a ground ambulance. While a ground ambulance is a less expensive option than a dedicated air ambulance, the latter is the preferred option for saving valuable time during the golden hour of your injury or illness. You might be unsure which of these two alternatives is best for you and your family. This factsheet is here to help you find the correct answers.

The key points to remember when choosing between a ground ambulance and an air ambulance:

  • A ground ambulance is a vehicle that is properly equipped to transport patients by road to their destination, such as better-equipped hospitals. They are more affordable than air ambulances. However, when other factors such as flexibility and quick availability, passenger and luggage transportation, and, most importantly, safety are taken into account, air ambulances come in first.
  • An air ambulance can be either a fixed-wing or a rotary-wing aircraft. Both types of vehicles are used to transport injured or sick patients, conscious or unconscious, over long distances in an efficient, comfortable, and timely manner. They are stocked with lifesaving materials/tools such as medical devices and monitors, as well as highly trained medical personnel, to keep patients stable until they can be safely transferred to a hospital.

The uses of ground ambulances and air ambulances

Medical Repatriation UK offers medical flights as well as a variety of additional services to UK citizens and residents in need of medical attention. When our representatives answer questions from patients, they are frequently asked if using a ground ambulance to transport them home over long distances is a better option than using an ambulance aircraft. To be honest, while both modes of patient transportation have parallels, their specific applications differ depending on a variety of factors.

Our ground and air ambulances are intended to transport critically ill and injured patients from one location to another. We designed both modes of transportation to be similar to a hospital's intensive care unit in order to provide the best level of care to our patients.

As such, qualified and experienced healthcare professionals staff our ground and air ambulances. They could be paediatricians, obstetrician-gynaecologists, or intensive care doctors or paramedics depending on the patient’s needs. Our ground and air ambulances are also outfitted with cutting-edge medical equipment. These may include ventilators for patients suffering from acute respiratory distress, paediatric incubators for sick children, or a modern isolation unit for transporting Covid-19 infected patients.

But the question then remains: what’s a better pick for you, a ground ambulance or an air ambulance? To answer this question, let’s look at the specificities of both types of medical transport.

ground ambulance interior

What are the advantages and limitations of ground ambulances?

A ground ambulance is a vehicle that is equipped and is properly authorised to transport patients by road to their destination, such as better-equipped hospitals. They are less expensive than air ambulances. and are the preferred mode of transportation for shorter distances or between hospitals. They come pre-loaded with medical equipment that can be tailored to the patient's specific needs, as well as medical personnel to assist with the patient transfer. 

However, when other important factors such as flexibility, passenger and luggage transportation, and, most importantly, safety are considered, air ambulances come in first. Indeed, ground ambulances are vulnerable to a variety of unforeseeable risk factors, such as traffic delays and road accidents, which can jeopardise the patient's condition.

The advantages of ground ambulances

  • Rapid mobilisation;
  • Direct transfer from hospital to hospital;
  • Less dependent on weather;
  • More appropriate for shorter distances,

The limitations of ground ambulances

  • Limited space;
  • Slow over long distances;
  • Dependent on traffic conditions;
  • Medical interventions may be difficult to provide during transport;
  • Subjected to acceleration, noise and vibration which can cause discomfort.

What are the pros and cons of fixed-wing ambulances?

An air ambulance can be a fixed-wing aircraft or a rotary-wing aircraft. Both are used to transport injured or sick, conscious or unconscious patients over long distances in an efficient, comfortable, and timely manner. They are stocked with lifesaving materials/tools, such as medical devices and monitors, as well as highly trained medical personnel, in order to keep the patient in a stable condition until they are safely transferred to a hospital. We also provide ICU-configured aircraft, a critical care trained crew, specialised paediatric incubators, or modern isolation units for Covid-infected patients at Medical Repatriation UK.

ambulance jet

A fixed-wing air ambulance benefits patients of all ages and conditions in a variety of ways:

  • It can accommodate more equipment and passengers.
  • It involves highly trained medical teams (all our ambulances do). 
  • Because they have the same level of equipment as an intensive care unit, patients in any condition can be transferred quickly from hospital to hospital.
  • It is suitable for long-distance patient transportation (241 km or more). It enables patients who may not have access to specialised treatment in their current location to consult specialists in another country.
  • It facilitates inter-hospital transfers for patients who want to be closer to their loved-ones and who need to be treated at a preferred healthcare institution back in the UK in the event of an injury or illness while away on vacation or a business trip.
  • It shortens the transit time for critical resources required to save a patient's life, such as frozen section biopsies, plasma, blood samples or organs.
  • It benefits from additional fuel capacity.

What are the limitations of a fixed-wing ambulance?

  • They involve complex logistics. To reduce waiting times and costs, we frequently dispatch an ambulance jet from a location which is close to the patient's location.
  • They require a landing strip. As a result, they require ground transportation to and from airports and healthcare facilities.
  • They may be dependent on weather conditions.
  • They are not appropriate or cost-effective for short distances.

What are the benefits and limitations of a rotary-wing ambulance (ambulance helicopters)?

Rotary-wing medical aircraft are nothing more than ambulance helicopters. These types of air ambulances are most commonly used when someone needs to be transported as quickly as possible over a short distance, such as from one location to another within the same country. Because of their ability to land almost anywhere, they are useful in situations where a ground ambulance would have difficulty reaching the patient.

ambulance helicopter

Their strong points include:

  • Offering a rapid transport when ground ambulances are not available or cannot reach the patients.
  • Reducing out-of-hospital transfer time.
  • Efficiency over short distances between 160 to 240 km.

However, their use may be limited because:

  • They can be more expensive than ambulance jets and ground ambulances.
  • They require a helipad.
  • They have limited cabin space.
  • They do not ensure a stable temperature during the flight.

What are the alternatives for air ambulances?

Scheduled commercial flights are a less expensive option for long-distance transportation than air ambulances. They are recommended for stable patients who do not require intensive care. Patients can travel in business class or on a stretcher with a paramedic. If it is determined that a stretcher is required, it will be installed in the cabin specifically for the purpose of transporting the patient. Stretchers are only used on direct long-distance commercial flights; they are not used on short-distance or connecting flights because the process is too time-consuming. An airline company may need between one and two days to accommodate a stretcher on their flight.

Finally, the three modes of transportation that we propose each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Their application is highly dependent on your requirements, as well as the various elements mentioned throughout this article, including the distance to be travelled. Having trouble making a decision? Please do not hesitate to contact our representatives if you require any additional information. They will gladly recommend the best mode of transportation for your requirements.

Do you have any additional questions?

If you couldn't find what you were looking for, please visit our FAQ page.

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