I have been in the medical services industry for 34 years in Montana. As a nurse with the Billings Clinic, I started my career in some of the Clinic’s most intense emergency medical teams, working at both the critical care unit and the ICU in my first two years.
I took that experience to the skies, where I served as a flight nurse for 24 years with the MedFlight Air Ambulance program. I am now the manager. If there is one thing I’ve learned in this line of work, it’s that patients in rural communities would be completely cut off from the life- saving treatment if it were not for our network of airports and general aviation.
Our program comes from humble beginnings. I started with the MedFlight Program in 1987, about ten years after the first medical flights with the Billings Clinic, but initially, we just treated cardiac patients in central and eastern Montana.
Today, the Billings Clinic MedFlight team is a regional provider, with a 300-mile coverage radius, serving parts of Montana, Wyoming, South and North Dakota. We answer the call for any patient that needs emergency care, which varies from trauma to high risk OB to cardiac and neurological patients.
With about 700 flights completed a year, we are recognized nationally as a leader in providing safe, efficient, and quality emergency transport care to rural communities.
It is easy to understand the immense value that general aviation brings to emergency medical care when you consider some of the challenges that rural communities in Montana and the region face when it comes to medical access.
For one, many of our smaller towns do not have the resources for specialized care at their local hospital or medical clinic, so the nearest facility to effectively treat more complex health problems may be hours away, in Billings or Denver.
Take the town of Glendive, for example. If a patient is experiencing an emergency cardiac arrest that requires specialized care, they would be over 215 miles and about 3 and a half hour drive away from the closest clinic that can provide it, here in Billings. However, general aviation aircraft allows that same patient to be transported in under 2 hours.
An unfortunate trend in rural communities is the closure of community hospitals and the merging of public medical services between towns. In many of these towns, EMT’s and ambulance services are completely volunteer based. Once again, this trend contributes to the growing issue of care access, but it also highlights the impact that small aircraft medical flights have in the region.
Our flights can carry expert medical professionals to provide air transport care when needed. We provide ventilation and incubation, among many other lifesaving services during the transport. With the benefit of time and level of expertise, the resource of general aviation for medical flights can be the difference between life and death.
The Billing Clinic also utilizes general aviation for scheduled outpatient care through our Outreach Program. Spanning from Missoula to Williston, North Dakota, we’re able to send specialized physicians, nurses, medical practitioners and therapists to critical access hospitals and physician offices in rural communities to treat patients that otherwise would not have the access at their local facilities.
Much like the MedFlight program, our outreach team has grown and become a model for the rest of the nation – just this last July, we serviced 21 different specialties in the region.
None of this important work would be possible without the vast network of airports in Montana. With over 128 public-use airports in the state, and several more in Wyoming and the Dakotas, our medical teams are able to touch extremely remote areas within a 300-mile radius to provide lifesaving services.
Not only that, businesses of all sizes across our state depend on these aircraft and airports to reach far off markets and customers, fire fighters depend on this network as a base for their operations, and communities could not connect with supplies they need during crises if it were not for this critical infrastructure.
The long story short is that while everyone knows the value of big airports, trains and highways, many may not know the value of their local airport or general aviation, including opportunities to work in this field, and unfortunately, the aviation is facing a workforce shortage across the board.
Over the next 20 years, it’s estimated that we will need 212,000 new pilots and 193,000 new maintenance technicians just in North America. The shortage extends even further for women in aviation. Women make up less than 10% of the aviation.
Luckily there are many resources available to help raise awareness about the importance of this sector to our economy and rural communities in particular, as well as to encourage younger generations to pursue careers in aviation both locally and nationally. Let’s continue this trend and make sure we support this critical sector.
Randy Laird is the manager of the MedFlight Air Ambulance for the Billings Clinic.