Canada Air Ambulance Response Under Review
Ontario's Emergency Health Services Branch is investigating after an air ambulance stood by while a critically injured woman was driven to hospital in Kitchener.
The branch, a wing of the Ministry of Health, asked Waterloo Region's own ambulance service for its records of the unusual incident that unfolded Wednesday afternoon on a rural road just west of New Hamburg.
Dispatched from London, an Ornge helicopter landed at the crash site with only one paramedic on board. The service's protocol requires that in cases of critical injury, two paramedics must transport a patient to hospital.
Ornge says an unexpected staffing shortage meant it simply couldn't transport the woman, whose car rolled and left her with critical head injuries.
With the helicopter parked nearby, a Region of Waterloo land ambulance drove her the 40-minute distance to Grand River Hospital, where another Ornge helicopter picked her up and took her to a trauma centre in Hamilton.
The story is raising the ire of Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris, an outspoken critic of Ornge. Ontarians pay "tens of millions of dollars" every year for the air ambulance service, and should expect it to be fully staffed when they need it the most, he said.
"It's like showing up to a fire with a fire truck that doesn't have any water in the tanker," Harris said. "Each and every second matters so much, it can actually mean the difference between life and death. If you send medical personnel to the scene and they don't have the resources they need, it doesn't matter how fast they get there."
Harris said the staffing shortfall at Ornge is "clearly putting Ontarians' lives at risk."
In this case, the woman injured in the crash is still in hospital in Hamilton and her condition is considered stable. But Harris says no excuses should be accepted.
"When the Ornge helicopter shows up, you'd think that your loved one is going to have the ability to be put in a helicopter and be rushed to a hospital," he said. "There's not much sense showing up without the proper resources."
Dispatching an Ornge helicopter to carry a patient isn't cheap. It costs between $7,000 and $9,000 per hour of flying time, according to the agency.
Critics say a lack of critical care paramedics in Ontario is behind the occasional shortages at Ornge, forcing it to dispatch helicopters to serious accident scenes with only one paramedic.
Deb Matthews, Ontario's health minister, issued a statement saying Ornge is working to fix its staffing shortages, and now employs 232 paramedics. That's an increase of 15 since June.
"Much progress has been made at Ornge yet there is still more to do. Under the new leadership, there is stronger oversight, they've hired more pilots and more paramedics, and, most importantly, they've renewed their focus to put patients first," she said.
The agency still doesn't have all the helicopter pilots it needs, she acknowledged. But Matthews threw her support behind the much-maligned service, saying staff there "work tirelessly to do everything they can to help Ontarians in their moment of greatest need."
Bruce Farr, Ornge's acting vice-president of operations, said in an interview Thursday that the problem in Wednesday's call was not a "staffing shortage," but a rare blip caused by an unexpected absence by a paramedic.
Although it tries to fills those occasional gaps, the air ambulance's London base reported nine shifts between Aug. 15 and Nov. 15 when it was forced to operate with only one paramedic, according to figures provided by Ornge.
"It's not always perfect. ... You can hit that time where you put out the call to all your part-time staff and your off-duty full-time staff and you're not able to get someone to come in on that short of notice," Farr said.
Sending an air ambulance, even an understaffed one, is still the right decision in cases of critical injuries, he said, because the paramedic on-board can help out at the scene. It's the same thing for land ambulances, Farr said.
"We're expected to send an ambulance with a single person on board to do what they can," he said. "It's only about helping the patient in that time of need, the transport is secondary to that decision."
It's a decision that's made very quickly with the best interest of the patient at heart, Farr said.
"It's the absolute correct thing to do. The flip side would be to ignore what's going on in the community because there's a single paramedic," he said. "This is all about the patient."
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