Lifeflight docs refuse to fly on planes provided by private contractor

Dr. Ashley Blais says remote doctors should not be expected to replace the highly specialized Lifeflight doctors on air ambulance

AN AIR AMBULANCE WITHOUT DOCTORS WAS NOT WHAT GORDON JEBB NEEDED. But that’s what the the 53-year-old heart attack victim from The Pas, Manitoba got on July 2.

Jebb was in critical condition. He needed immediate expert care. But none of the doctors who could give him that care were on board his Lifefight to Winnipeg. They just didn’t think the private King Air 200 plane was safe.

The 17 doctors who staff the LifeFlight Air Ambulance program stopped boarding air ambulance planes in late June—following a provincial government decision to privatize the 34-year old public service, ground it’s two Cessna Citation jets, lay off nine pilots and a maintenance crew, and contract out air ambulance services to a company using the smaller King Air 200s.

Too big a risk

Physicians say the private King Air 200s don’t have the same safety features for transport of critical patients. Over the past year, Lifeflight physicians repeatedly warned the province they would stop flying if their concerns over the private carriers were not met.

Lifeflight doctors cited concerns about the private planes’ smaller size, accessibility of heart rate monitors, issues with lifts and noise when compared to the Citations, as well as concern over a lack of meaningful consultation with government about the transition.

Now that Lifeflight doctors refuse to board the private planes, the province is scrambling to find nurses and doctors willing to fly in the private planes Manitoba citizens now must rely on for air ambulance service.

Another privatization gong show

“The government has put the system in chaos and it’s completely of their own creation,” says Manitoba Government Employees Union president, Michelle Gawronsky. “This was an excellent public service with an impeccable safety record and they’ve turned it all upside down because of ideology, because they would prefer to see a corporation profit from this service. It’s that simple.”

The government knew the move to a private service would create staffing problems. In fact, in a June 15 memo they told Manitoba’s local health authorities and clinical leaders, “it is possible that some adult transports may need your assistance.”

Unsafe and unrealistic expectations

Dr. Ashley Blais, a family medicine and ER physician in Sainte Rose du Lac, Man., says the government call-out for doctors and nurses across the province to backfill the medevacs puts unrealistic and unsafe expectations on staff.

“Lifeflight is an ICU on wheels in the air. And there’s special doctors and special nurses that run ICUs in any hospital.”

“They’re asking us to get on these planes and manage critical care patients outside of our facility and outside of our scope of practice and outside of our level of skill or training,” she said.

Another drawback to this patchwork arrangement is that it draws northern physicians away from their patients. “Your local surgeon or anesthesiologist may not be available because they are having to step in for Lifeflight,” says Blais.

Details on the request for proposals for a private company to take over the entire contract have not been released.

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