Five years ago, Southwest Ambulance would transport its largest patients using what it described as something similar to a parachute with a ball on it for weight.
“We would have to put the patient on a tarp on the ground . . . and we would use as many as 10 people,” said Josh Weiss, company spokesman. “You had to bring in extra ambulance people or extra firefighters to then have everyone stand around the tarp to lift the person to put then on the floor of the ambulance.”
Traditional gurneys, or stretchers, were only able to hold about 450 pounds.
“If you have a patient that’s 600 pounds, what are you going to do?” Weiss said. “You can imagine there’s no dignity in that. It also creates inefficiencies . . . because you have to take all those extra crews away from other potential emergencies to help just in the lifting, and then you have the secondary problem of potential back problems and increased worker’s compensation (insurance) issues.”
To put large people on the floor of the ambulance, clamps that hold the gurneys have to be removed so people placed on top of them aren’t cut or injured. That required someone from the company’s fleet department to modify the ambulance before transporting large people, Weiss said.
In recent years, gurneys have been made stronger to hold patients as large as 1,000 pounds. Ambulances have been converted, too. Southwest was one of the first five ambulance providers to create a bariatric care unit.
The company outfitted an ambulance with a ramp so lifting the patient isn’t required. A wench and cable connection were added to the gurney to mechanically pull the stretcher up the ramp into the back of the ambulance.
In one modification, the floor of the ambulance was raised to put the ramp underneath and air bags were added to the back of the ambulance to lower the angle for the ramp. That cost about $20,000. A less expensive modification with motorcycle ramps cost $3,500, Weiss said.
It now only takes three or four people to load the overweight person, employee insurance claims have gone down and it makes patients more comfortable, Weiss said.
People who refused before to be transported for doctor visits and went without needed medical care are now more confident the gurney and related equipment will handle them, he said.
Southwest has three ambulances for large people in the state, two in the Valley and one in Tucson. Obese people reserve the ambulances for doctor’s appointments. In emergency situations, if the patient is stable, the special ambulance will be sent.
“In the event the person needs to go immediately, we still use the tarp,” Weiss said.
The moving of large people also is resulting in more expenses for hospitals.
At Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, which opens Monday, it will cost nearly $400,000 to safely handle large patients with in-ceiling and other lifting devices, said Bob Lichvar, a registered nurse and employee wellness manager at Catholic Healthcare West. That total does not include the motorized beds that will be used so nurses and others don’t have to push large patients, he said.
“That was a huge expense,” Lichvar said.
Electrical ceiling lifts will be installed in a dozen intensive care unit rooms that will turn and move the patient from bed to stretcher and bed to chair. Ten to the rooms will accommodate up to 440 pounds and two will be used for those up to 880 pounds.
The emergency department and other areas will use movable floor lifts that function similar to a car engine hoist, Lichvar said.
At Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, larger beds and commodes have to be rented about once a month. The hospital has two wheelchairs for obese people, a Banner spokeswoman said.