Revolutionsing Emergency Health Care
How a Young Doctor Set Up West Africa’s First Air Ambulance Service
By Drive Africa Writer
British Born Ola Olekunrin’s story is an inspiring tale of passion, innovation, tragedy, and excellence. Ola was born in London and grew up with foster parents in Lowestoft-a small town in England. An academically gifted and hardworking student, she went to study medicine at the UK’s University of York at the institution’s Hull School Medicine. Ola graduated at 21 years as the youngest qualified doctor in the UK. She later won a scholarship to study regenerative medicine at Japan’s Jikei University Hospital. A defining moment happened that would change the course of Ola’s professional life. Her 12 year old sister who had sickle cell anaemia and had been travelling in Nigeria fell seriously ill. Ola’s family immediately begun to look for ways to evacuate her to a hospital that could provide the medical care that she needed.
To the family’s surprise there was no air ambulance services that could provide the service in all of Nigeria-and west Africa. The only service that could be located was several hours away in South Africa. The South African service would have needed a 12 hour activation time evacuate Ola’s sister. As there was no time to arrange the evacuation, Ola’s sister died. The tragedy inspired Ola to want to do something about solving the problem of the lack of emergency transportation services in Africa. The choice for Ola was to remain the UK and lament about Africa’s healthcare problem or to be on the ground in Africa doing something about it. So Ola decided she was going to go Nigeria and set an air ambulance service. Moving to Nigeria also meant that the politically ambitious Ola had to forego her political and public service aspirations such as her planned bids for a leadership position with the conservative party and the British Medical Association
Ola immersed herself in research about air transportation and ambulance models in places such as Kenya, Libya, Uganda, and India. Ola took the plunge and sold her car, house, and bought her ticket to Nigeria. Once in Nigeria she hit the ground running pitching her idea to potential partners and stakeholders. As an entrepreneur, Ola quickly spotted a gap in the market where she noted that the few good hospitals in the country were located great distances from where the medical emergencies happened-in some instances some of the hospitals were located a day’s journey away. Ola also noted that Nigeria had a large oil and gas industry which did not have an organised system of getting potential offshore accident victims to health care facilities. The start was not easy however. She had to endure rejection and having to long wait long hours to see public officials. Her British accent did help matters either. Not to be outdone the steadfast Ola stayed the course until she launched Flying Doctors Nigeria Ltd-West Africa’s first air ambulance service. Since its founding in Lagos, the company has opened offices in two major Nigerian cities, acquired over 20 helicopters and planes and employs over 30 doctors who provide critical care to a variety of emergency and trauma conditions.
Within the first three years of its operations Flying Doctors Nigeria Ltd has airlifted over 500 patients with medical emergencies from a cross section of clients including oil rig workers, road accident victims, and private clients seeking medical evacuation. The company has diversified its client base to include government departments, wealthy individuals, and corporates who obtain the company’s services on contract and retainers. Flying Doctors Nigeria has also forged partnerships with hospitals in Nigeria to provide its services. The company has also developed annual coverage plans under which clients can enrol in to access its services. Running and growing the company has not been easy either. From the high operating costs of a capital intensive business to poor infrastructure-managing the business has been marked by challenge after challenge. And yet Ola seems to have been sustained by what she describes as her ‘love for medicine and Africa’. A passion that is d r i v i n g t h e e m e r g i n g h e a l t h c a r e entrepreneur to impact healthcare in Africa. Ola has won several international accolades for her work. In 2013 she was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She also took up a t e a c h i n g p o s i t i o n a t M I T i n entrepreneurship