Health minister unveils medevac facility
Northern Alberta residents flown in to tour EIA site
Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne attempted to put fears to rest over the re-routing of northern Alberta medevac services as he hosted community representatives and media from northern Alberta at the new air ambulance base at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) Wednesday.
Joined by government ministers and PC MLAs from northern Alberta, including Bonnyville - Cold Lake MLA Genia Leskiw, Alberta Health Services (AHS) representatives and emergency medical services staff, Horne said patient safety and access to rapid, high quality emergency care for northern Albertans is a priority and the new medevac facility will fulfill the provincial government’s commitment to that.
“I am very confident we will do what we have always done in Edmonton, deliver a first class state of the art medevac service to the residents of northern Alberta. We know you are depending on it and we will continue to deliver it for you,” Horne said.
Municipal officials and media flown in from communities across northern Alberta, were toured through the new 3,600-square-metre hanger complete with a six-bed patient transition area staffed by EMS staff and dedicated advanced life-support ground ambulances – four during daytime and high volume periods and two at night and during low volume periods. They were also treated to demonstrations by EMS staff showing patient transfer from the aircraft to a waiting ambulance, which will all take place inside the hanger.
At the forefront of concerns about the relocation of medevac to the EIA is the additional time involved in transporting critical time-sensitive patients from the there to tertiary care centres in Edmonton. Those attending the unveiling of the new facility were told STARS helicopters will transport those critical patients from the EIA to Edmonton hospitals as available. Estimated flight time from the EIA is 10 to 12 minutes. Ground transfer is estimated by AHS as being between 30 and 37 minutes depending on which hospital the ambulance is going to.
No triage at EIA
Dr. Ian Phelps, senior medical director for emergency medical services for AHS, put to rest some reports indicating the patient transfer area would work as a triage. He said the facility’s patient transition area is not intended for critical, time-sensitive patients. Those patients will be transported immediately to Edmonton hospitals.
“This is not a triage unit or a patient care ward, it is simply a safe, comfortable place where EMS staff can monitor non critical, less urgent patients waiting to be transported to a hospital or returned back to their community.”
Fixed-wing medevac flights out of northern Alberta began flying into the EIA Friday despite repeated calls led by the Save Our medevac Society (SOS) to delay the move. The decision to re-route medevac flights to the EIA is a result of the decision by the Edmonton city council to eventually close the City Centre Airport and open the land up for development.
Horne said approximately 3,000 patients are flown to Edmonton by airplane each year. Of those, 80 per cent are heading to scheduled procedures or higher level of care, while 16 per cent are deemed high priority. Of those, 10 per cent are considered time sensitive. These numbers have been disputed by SOS, which claims the number of critical, time-sensitive patients is much higher.
“I certainly would not be a part of any plan that would put my patients at risk,” Phelps said, in response to a question about the many doctors, now numbering 105, who have signed a letter indicating “moving the medevacs on March 15 is unnecessary, costly and will have fatal consequences.” Rather, Phelps who said he is also an emergency physician at Fort McMurray’s Northern Lights Hospital, is convinced the new system will result in improved quality of care.
“I don’t believe we are sacrificing anything here,” Horne said when questioned as to whether northern Albertans would be receiving a lower level of emergency care with the move. “I think some people are still worried and I think the best way to deal with that is to provide an opportunity to ask doctors and the EMS workers the questions directly and have the benefit of that expertise and that’s what today is all about.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said to claim the City Centre Airport saves lives simply because of its location is wrong.
“It is the care that people get from the time they need care in the north, the care that they get in the hospital in the north where they need care, the time it takes to get to the airport, the time it takes to fly in. It’s the services and personnel that are really critical not the location of the airport.”
Horne said his department and AHS relied on information from the Health Quality Council of Alberta to ensure the new site will continue to provide northern Albertans with a high standard of emergency care.
“The Health Quality Council made 18 recommendations and I am pleased to say we have accepted all 18 of them, and in fact we did some time ago, and we have either implemented them already or will be. This beautiful facility is the result.”
Since 2010 a total of 62 flights have been diverted to the EIA for various reasons including weather concerns. Horne said seven of those cases were critical, time-sensitive cases and all of those cases had positive outcomes.
Lac La Biche-St. Paul MLA Shayne Saskiw described Wednesday’s event as a “last ditch, desperate attempt to deceive northern Albertans and apparently to deceive some media.”
Saskiw told media at the event the government’s failure to implement all 18 of the Health Quality Council of Albert’s report before relocating medevac will put northern Albertan’s lives at risk.
“The minister talked about the Health Quality Council report, part of those recommendations is that an overpass would be built, that there would be a dedicated ambulance lane on QE 2 and there are many other recommendations that haven’t been satisfied,” he said.
“These doctors have no motivation to do this,” Saskiw said of the doctors who have gone public with their opposition to what they see is a premature move to the EIA. “We’ve seen with this government that doctors are bullied and intimidated. They are not doing this for politics or anything liked that, they are doing it to stand up for their patients and stand up for northern Albertans.”
Premier says medevac an emotional issue
Later in the day, Premier Alison Redford met separately with the community leaders and northern media at the Alberta Legislature. She described the medevac move as being an emotional issue for people that, to some extent, has been fueled by misinformation.
Asked if she felt the government could have done a better job on communicating the medevac move, Redford said the issue has become a political one.
“Unfortunately, when these sorts of issue come up, we do see people become quite political about them and take advantage of that opportunity to spread information that isn’t quite clear,” Redford said. “ We have medevac, we don’t need to save our medevac. What we have is a medevac system that is landing at a different location.”
Redford said the reality is the City Centre Airport land belongs to the City of Edmonton. “If there was any move to try to expropriate that land the costs would be astronomical if we could even do it. It’s not appropriate for us as a provincial government to step into decisions that any community might make with respect to their land and their property and their resources. We’ve been faced with this situation, we’re responding to the situation and I’ve got a lot of confidence that this system is going to serve Albertans from northern Alberta.”
Asked if the province would move forward on implementing all 18 of the health quality council’s recommendations, Redford said, “There were some recommendations in there that at this point in time, such as the overpass, that we are not going to construct, I don’t think that has a material impact on our ability to provide a safe and secure medevac system.”
Bonnyville – Cold Lake MLA Genia Leskiw said she recognizes the medevac change is an important and sensitive issue for her constituents.
“We need to move forward and make the new way we serve northern Albertans the best it can be,” Leskiw said. “I will continue to work with Alberta Health Services to assure we have reliable, quality care for northern Albertans. And, I will be with this issue every step of the way to make sure that northern Alberta families get the best care possible with this new system.”
Community leaders take a wait and see approach
MD of Bonnyville Reeve Ed Rondeau was among the community leaders from the northeast who attended the event. By the end of the day, he was feeling more comfortable about the medevac move.
“For myself, I’m a little more at ease having seen the facilities and the size of the facilities. It looks like it’s going to be a first class operation. There is still going to be doubts in our minds and I don’t think those will go away until such time as they’ve developed a record,” Rondeau said.
“If you’re coming in and it’s a time-sensitive flight, they are going to put you on another ambulance and you’re heading to the hospital. You’re not sitting there for another 20 minutes being prepped.
Danny Smaiel, a school board trustee and businessman from Lac La Biche, also said some of his concerns have been addressed and he was impressed by the facility at the EIA and appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from the health minister and premier on the issue.
“Having been dealt the cards they have with the closure of the airport, I feel they are trying their best to provide the service we expect. But, there is hesitation and until we see it in full practice and in full use, we can’t honestly understand the full workings of it until we go forward.”
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