Healthcare in an Arctic Oil Field: What medical care looks like on the North Slope.

AuthorDavenport, Sam

On Alaska's isolated North Slope--more than 650 miles from Anchorage via airplane--thousands of individuals work in the oil and gas industry. While many of those employees have their medical needs covered by their employers, what happens if someone gets hurt or sick? How do the nearly 10,000 people who reside within the North Slope Borough's boundaries receive medical care?

Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services has ten remote medical locations across the North Slope; six are accessible by car and three are situated on islands, accessed by ice roads in the winter and marine vessels in the summer. The tenth location is only accessible by plane.

"To put it into perspective, our closest location is about fifteen minutes away from the airport where a medevac would take place, so Guardian support, LifeMed, et cetera, would be there to support getting a patient off the slope," says Amanda Johnson, Beacon's vice president of medical and training services. "Then, the furthest from that location is about two hours away... And then there are others that are within about twenty to thirty minutes of each other."

Johnson says very few patients who visit Beacon's clinics are year-round North Slope residents. Some are transient or visitors to the state, tourists, or otherwise--but the majority are there for work, generally on behalf of an oil field operator or contractor.

Johnson says their clinics receive upward of 12,000 visits a year. "Even though there could be days without a major traumatic event, when that event takes place, our team's ability to respond is really key to our success," Johnson adds.

Dr. John Hall, medical director at Beacon, has been working in the medical field on the North Slope for nearly forty years. "We've always had good, quality PAs [physician assistants], and Beacon makes sure that all of our PAs have good, emergency medicine experience," he says. "Then we teach them occupational medicine if they don't already have it."

In addition to his role at Beacon, Hall also works in the emergency department at Providence Alaska Medical Center, so he sees first hand some of the differences of working in an urban center versus remote oil field. He says Beacon's remote medical professionals--emergency medical technicians, paramedics, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners--have smaller teams than those based in urban areas. For example, if a patient suffers from an acute heart attack, Hall says he...

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