More than 1000 people have benefitted from hospital flight service

30 June 2016

From left: Board Chair David Scott, pilot and chief executive of Air Gisborne Andrew Reid, Flight Nurse Deb Murphy, Patient Jeff Hussey and Paramedic Greg Fisher.

In 2012 the then Tairāwhiti District Health Board made the decision to launch its own flight service. Faced with increasing costs and lengthy delays getting patients urgent access to specialist care in larger hospitals, an innovative solution was required. Four years and more than 1000 missions later it is a decision that has paid off; both for the people who have been transported on the flight service and in cost savings.

Air Gisborne was contracted to supply the aircraft, says Hauora Tairāwhiti Board Chair David Scott. “We have two planes - one pressurised and one unpressurised - and a specially trained team of flight nurses.”

“Having our own flight service allows for speedy delivery of patients to hospitals such as Waikato, where many Tairāwhiti people are treated,” said Mr Scott. “In an emergency we can have a patient on the plane in one and half hours. This is much faster than it used to be. If there is no emergency, patients will usually be transported within a day.”

The fast service was certainly appreciated by Tokomaru Bay man Jeff Hussey who suffered multiple injuries after a motorbike accident in April. “I broke eight ribs and did some damage to my kidney and liver after the bike landed on me. I was taken to ICU at Gisborne Hospital and flown to Waikato that night. I was in pain and was very grateful for the nurse who was on the plane with me. She was very professional monitoring my vital signs and constantly reassuring me. Four weeks later I had another trip on the plane back to Waikato after one of the Gisborne Hospital House surgeons picked up an issue with my heart that needed investigation.”

Having our own planes also means we can bring people home again, says Mr Scott.” The planes are coming back anyway so why not use them. It saves on commercial flights. Airlines will turn patients down if they have recently been in hospital or they may demand that a nurse accompany the patient. The decision as to whether someone will be turned down by an airline is based on the information from the hospital and their discharge summary. Waiting for this can cause long delays.”

“Bringing patients back from other hospitals on the flight service means they can get home, closer to whānau and friends sooner. It also frees up beds for people needing specialist care such as heart services in Waikato.”

For people who may still be unwell or have limited mobility a long drive or a commercial flight is very stressful, David adds. “There are a limited number of flights from Hamilton to Gisborne. Without Hauora Tairāwhiti’s flight service people can have a long wait. Flights are no longer direct so people have to go through Wellington or Auckland and transfer planes.”

I also came home on a flight from Waikato, says Mr Hussey. “For sick people the flight service is a god send. With my broken ribs still painful I could manage a 40 minute flight. I’m not sure how I would have coped with a long day in a vehicle. Once again the nurse put me at ease. I was on the flight with an older lady who was quite frail and shaky. I am not sure how she would have coped on a commercial flight.”

About 80 percent of Hauora Tairāwhiti patients use the pressurised service in a plane leased by Air Gisborne, says Flight Service Team Leader Jacqui Johnson. “As you go up in the air the air expands as there is no pressure to keep it together. Air is thinner the higher you go so you have to breathe harder This is dangerous for people with heart and lung conditions or after having some types of surgery such as brain surgery.”

“The unpressurised plane is owned by Air Gisborne. It is used to transport people who are medically well but may have had surgery which prevents them from travelling comfortably in a car or on a commercial flight. The plane is also often used to bring children to and from Starship. Children are less likely to have lung and heart problems.”