Wash. university to expand air medical transport service

Arielle Dreher
The Spokesman Review, Spokane, Wash.

DAVENPORT, Wash. – Airlift Northwest, the University of Washington-affiliated emergency medical air transport service, will open a new base in Davenport this June.

The nonprofit plans to expand its services to serve rural Eastern Washington patients who might need to be airlifted from smaller hospitals to ones in Spokane or Seattle.

Airlift Northwest has both planes and helicopters in its fleet, and the organization primarily serves patients in Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana, flying them into Washington hospitals for care.

The new base at Davenport Municipal Airport will enable helicopter transports to more quickly service hospitals in Lincoln County, as well as the greater Northeast Tri-County area.

Davenport was picked, in part, for its proximity to other rural regions, as well as where the need was most apparent based on comments from local emergency medical services providers, said Jeff Richey, executive director of Airlift Northwest.

“It makes sense when we look at where our other bases are at; this gives us a good coverage of the area,” Richey said.

Airlift Northwest has both planes and helicopters to use, depending on how long a flight is and what the weather is like.

The nonprofit has helicopter bases in Bellingham, Arlington, Bremerton, Olympia and Wenatchee. There are planes based in Yakima, Wenatchee and Pasco.

Two intensive care nurses fly with each plane or helicopter, and they can transport patients on ECMO machines, which pump oxygen into their blood. The planes and helicopters are akin to airborne ICUs or emergency departments and carry two blood units to treat patients if necessary.

Last year, more than 200 patients received blood or blood products while they were airborne.

Airlift Northwest also transfers pediatric patients to and from children’s hospitals across the Pacific Northwest. It’s a 24-hour service, and crews are airborne within 10 minutes of a call, Richey said.

In the Inland Northwest, rural patients who need critical care can depend on Airlift Northwest starting this summer.

“We want to be a faster way to be able to get to Spokane,” Richey said.

While all flights with Airlift Northwest will have two nurses, some flights might also have an emergency medicine resident. As part of the University of Washington, the service can be a piece of the residency programs that train new physicians at the medical school.

Airlift Northwest has air ambulance licenses in Washington and Alaska, but their crews can fly to Idaho, Nevada, Montana or Oregon and bring patients back to Washington hospitals for care.

During the pandemic, the service got a lot busier, Richey said, although only about 10% of the patients they were transporting had COVID-19.

“We’ve been that access to rural areas and hospitals to go to Seattle and Spokane,” Richey said.

Crews are busier in the summertime, averaging about 20 flights per day; in the winter, there is less activity, with about nine or 10 flights per day. Helicopters cannot fly in icy or snowy conditions, so in those situations, Airlift Northwest will opt for its airplanes.

Similar to other emergency medical airlift services, Airlift Northwest offers an annual membership that people can buy to cover the costs of transportation, so that they do not have to cover their deductible for the service. The nonprofit takes 70% of insurance plans in the region covering Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Richey said they are working to get that figure to 100%.

The University of Washington also offers a charity care program that patients can apply to help afford the costs of transportation.

Arielle Dreher’s reporting for The Spokesman Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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(c) 2022 The Spokesman Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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