A flying doctors service staffed by military medics and civilian experts in critical care will be launched in Wales, inspired by lessons learned saving the lives of wounded personnel in .
The Welsh government has announced that the service would start within weeks.
Helicopters and 4x4 vehicles will be used to carry specially trained critical care teams to most remote spots. The aircraft and vehicles will also carry blood and plasma – believed to be the only non-military emergency service to do this.
Members of the critical care teams have been put through their paces in recent weeks by NHS and army trainers. They have taken part in night-time exercises and fitness training. They have even used sports psychologists to prepare them for the challenges ahead and underwent a final exercise at an army base in south at the weekend when they were asked to cope with the aftermath of a simulated gas explosion.
Rhys Thomas, co-programme director who completed seven tours of duty in Afghanistan as part of an airborne unit, said medicine learned “massive lessons” from the war there. “Casualties were so severely injured they weren’t making it to hospital. We put a critical care consultant, a couple of paramedics and blood and blood products on to a helicopter and took them to an injured soldier. That combination allowed patients to be saved close to a scene and then flown quite long distances back to trauma centres.”
Thomas said Wales was similar to Afghanistan in that there could be long “time distances” to specialist centres. “It could take an hour and a half on bad roads and in poor weather. Now we’ll be able to get critical care teams out there and get the patient to the best centre for them.”
The three Wales Air Ambulance helicopters the service will use will operate from the charity’s bases in Swansea in south Wales and Welshpool in mid Wales. The cars will be strategically placed across the country. The critical care team will be able to reach 95% of the population by air and 46% by road within 30 minutes and both helicopters and vehicles will carry equipment ranging from incubators for babies born prematurely to ventilators and blood clotting analysers as well as blood and blood products.
The Welsh deputy health minister, Vaughan Gething, said: “It will transform our ability to provide the very best care to the most critically ill patients in Wales. It will provide patients in remote and rural areas of Wales with rapid access to the skills of a consultant in emergency or intensive care medicine, who are equipped to provide life-saving, specialist critical care.”
The Welsh government will provide funding of almost £3m a year to support the service. “It shows there is innovation in Wales,” added Gething.
Welsh Conservative shadow minister for health, Darren Millar, welcomed the scheme. “This is an ambitious new idea that has the potential to save lives and that is hugely welcome.”
But Millar also aimed a swipe at the Welsh NHS’s poor record on ambulance response times. “What it’s not is a substitute for getting the ambulance service functioning properly on the ground as well,” he said.