A passion for saving lives
Dr Ola Orekunrin, a helicopter pilot and founder of Flying Doctors Nigeria, talks to Chukwu Emeke about the problems and solutions for dealing with medical emergencies in such a vast area.
West Africa is huge and handling medical emergencies can be challenging – especially in rural areas where it takes several hours by barely accessible roads to get the ill or injured to the most appropriate hospitals.
It is a problem that Ola Orekunrin, a UK-trained physician, feels passionately about.
After graduating from Hull York Medical School in England, Orekunrin, a member of both the American Academy of Aesthetic Surgeons and the British Medical Association, worked for almost 10 years in the UK National Health Service (NHS) before returning to Nigeria to pursue her dreams.
It was there, five years ago, that she set up Flying Doctors Nigeria (FDN) – a business she describes as “peculiar” but one which has helped her to combine her deep love for medicine and Africa with her passion for flying.
The service specialises in air ambulances, medevac, medico-logistics, remote site medical solutions, medical infrastructural development and medical training services.
“As a physician, I have always cared deeply about healthcare,” said Orekunrin. “One of the most important issues facing people today is the problem of logistics, getting the patient to the right medical facility in good time.”
Her organisation targets clients in high-risk arenas like the construction industry, where a lot of people work at heights with dangerous materials; the oil and gas industry; insurance; banking and manufacturing.
“When most people think of both private aircraft and commercial scheduled aircraft, they think luxury. However, we use these aircraft to move sick patients from areas where they have overwhelmed the level of care available to them, saving hundreds of lives a year,” said Orekunrin.
Many beneficiaries of FDN’s services have been patients transferred within west Africa. Countries like Chad and Mali do not have facilities that are available in Nigeria and so they are moved to that country for treatment.
This kind of service rarely has the end-user paying for it in Africa. Aside from a few instances where an individual possesses the financial capacity, a company could take life cover for all its employees. Typically this could include personnel that work with machines, bank personnel who sustain injury from robbery, miners in remote areas, and so on.
A percentage of service recipients are people who never imagined they would ever use an aircraft, because of their personal economic status. To their amazement, they see themselves being flown in a private jet to a hospital in the UK, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia or some African countries, courtesy of their organisation.
Equally, victims of security-related incidents, like bomb disasters, have the government picking up their bills.
FDN, the first air ambulance company in west Africa, maintains a high safety record. Its personnel can provide emergency transfer by road or air to the best source of local help, medical escorts on commercial airline flights, procurement of medical equipment and supplies for remote site support, and first aid training, among other services.
The company can be retained by corporate bodies using specialised plans.
“We partner with several airlines using our landmark product, the ETU, which is a removable medical cabin placed on a commercial flight,” said Orekunrin. “This reduces the cost of an aeromedical transport to less than the cost of a ground ambulance transport.”
Challenges facing this niche market “are similar to those for most of the aviation sector, cost being the most pertinent”.
However, research shows that specific constraints of the sector include getting the right personnel for the job, getting the appropriate aircraft, and considering the diversity of the kinds of injuries and sicknesses requiring different aircraft types for operation.
The current challenge of insecurity in certain parts of Nigeria, which the government is taking steps to address, is another limitation.
“We have more than 20 medical doctors, nurses and paramedics from different specialities working with us,” said Orekunrin.
FDN has doctors with years of experience and certificates in aviation medicine, working with a pool of specialised aircraft, such as helicopters to access offshore or remote areas, propeller planes for on-bush-type paths and non-defined runways, as well as jets that can land at major airports.