GNWT begins sending medevacs to new Leduc base

GNWT begins sending medevacs to new Leduc base
The new transition room at the Edmonton International Airport features six beds like this one to ease the transfer process from the medevac planes to city hospitals.Photo: Alberta Health Services.

As the government of the Northwest Territories’ begins sending medevac patients to the new Edmonton air ambulance base, a group of Alberta doctors, air ambulance pilots and rural advocates warn patients they are in danger if services are not reinstated at the former, city centre location.

As of May 14, the government of the Northwest Territories’ medevac program is operating in collaboration with the new air operations centre at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) based in Leduc instead of its previous base at the City Centre Airport in Edmonton, which is closer to the two downtown tertiary care hospitals.

“If we had a choice, physicians would not be allowing this to happen. If you have a choice, do not use the international airport. It’s at your peril,” Dr. Kerry Pawluski, the head of the Save Our Medevac Services Society, told The Journal.

The group alleges the transfer time it takes to receive urgent care has doubled with the move.

“Already we’ve noticed our times are well in excess compared to what they used to be…The move adds 35 minutes to the back end and that’s 35 minutes in optimal conditions,” Pawluski said. “There’s two levels of medicine: urban and rural.

Unfortunately your rural medicine is going from second rate to fourth rate. We’re going from the best transfer times to the worst.”

Alberta Health Services’ air ambulance base, servicing 12 fixed-wing air ambulances, moved from the city centre location to a new 3,600 square-metre hangar at EIA on March 15.

The hangar is beside the new STARS emergency helicopter facilities. The provincial government maintains this proximity means STARS will be able to transfer extreme emergency patients from fixed-wing flights arriving in Leduc directly to the city hospitals.

Any truth in that has so far been dismal, Pawluski said.

He gave an example from last week of a patient in critical condition with a lacerated heart from a motor vehicle collision in Fort McMurray. Staff at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray were able to save the patient in the operating room through open cardiac massage, but when they tried to send him down to one of the Edmonton hospitals from EIA using STARS, they were told the patient was “not acute enough,” Pawluski said.

“If ever there was case to be made for using STARS to quickly transport a patient to reduce the time in transferring him, this was it,” he said.

This isn’t an isolated incident either, Pawluski noted. He said STARS has not been used once since the relocation.

A report from the Health Quality Council of Alberta found that almost 4,000 patients arrived at Edmonton’s City Centre Airport in 2010 by air ambulance and that 1,779 of those were critical or time-dependent.

Save Our Medevac Services wants to see the decision about the air ambulance base relocating to EIA reversed and is urging the public to contact their MLAs.

The GNWT doesn’t see the move in a negative light, however, saying in a recent press release that it worked closely with Alberta Health Services and sees the relocation as an improvement of services for NWT patients.

“Our government is committed to ensuring that our patients receive good medical care while being transported to Edmonton hospitals in a safe and timely manner,” Minister of Health and Social Services Tom Beaulieu said in a recent press release. “We have worked in partnership with Alberta Health Services to develop procedures and plans so that our patients are able to get to the hospitals in a safe and timely way, while maintaining high standards for their medical care. I believe that we have achieved our goal and in fact have improved the quality of their care.”

Beaulieu’s statements were backed by Dr. Ian Phelps, senior medical director for Alberta Health Services Emergency Medical Services, who said the air operations centre at EIA offers a greater level of patient care and “ensures timely, safe transport for Northern patients.”

“The new facility offers many advantages, such as the ability to transfer patients indoors in a controlled environment and dedicated ground transportation vehicles and crews to support the arriving air ambulance crews,” he said in the same release.

The facility has a six-bed patient transition room with paramedic staff to support inbound and outbound stable patients and help coordinated medevac flights. According to the release, it also has ground ambulance shuttles with paramedic staff that allow the medevac crew to transfer most patients at the airport, so that they can return to full service more quickly.

But Pawluski remains skeptical.

“We were told that the triage centre at the EIA would be manned 24/7, then it was shaved down to 8:00-6:00 or something like that, and now I don’t think there’s anyone out there,” Pawluski said. “It’s strictly a holding area.”

Many of the 18 recommendations for the new medevac base made by the Health Quality Council of Alberta in its 2011 study have not been fulfilled, Pawluski said, such as the synchronization of lights, the standardization of equipment in the medevac planes, ground ambulances and STARS helicopters, and considering another airport in Edmonton as a backup option.

“You have to fly to Calgary if Edmonton is down because of weather or technical problems. So for someone coming from the Northwest Territories, that means you’re going to have to stop somewhere on route, refuel and then continue to Calgary,” he said. “The fact these recommendations have not been complied with is just criminal.”

Pawluski will be providing evidence as a witness in expropriation hearings beginning this week regarding the issue.

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