A review by the province into the quality of care by the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopter air ambulance service, and the temporary suspension of medical flights, has been extended by several weeks, Health Minister Erin Selby says.
"We did hope that we would have an answer for this quicker," Selby said. "We did hope that we would have the critical incident review back in January. It’s looking like we should have that back in the coming weeks."
The province suspended the operations of STARS Dec. 2 after three critical incidents in less than a year, including the death of a female patient suffering from cardiac arrest three days earlier. Each of the incidents involved issues with intubation and proper delivery of oxygen.
The first occurred last February and involved an adult; no details have been released. It resulted in six dispatch restrictions being placed by the province on STARS, including the type of patient the service could fly and the distance it could transport patients.
The second critical incident was last May, and involved two-year-old Morgan Moar-Campbell, who was being flown from Brandon on a STARS helicopter for tests following a seizure. The boy was in an induced coma and could not breathe on his own. When he landed in Winnipeg, it was discovered his breathing tube had become dislodged, depriving him of oxygen ad leaving him severely brain damaged. His case is now the subject of a lawsuit.
The provincial review also includes an external audit of 16 other cases involving STARS, and is being conducted by three Manitoba Health physicians.
"It was not an easy decision in the first place to ground STARS," Selby said. "It was not a decision made lightly and we did hope that could find a resolution a little quicker."
Tory health critic Myrna Driedger said the government is taking too long getting STARS back in the air.
"People are worried as to why they are not hearing more about what has happened with STARS, why it’s grounded for so long," she told reporters Wednesday. "I think people are wanting (Selby) to come forward and give some indication of when we can expect to have an air ambulance service back in place."
In response, Selby said STARS will only start transporting patients again when the review is complete.
She also confirmed an external report looking at 16 STARS cases is almost completed, and currently under review by STARS officials and its author, Dr. Stephen Wheeler of the B.C. Ambulance Service Air Ambulance Program.
"I hope we’ll have that in the coming weeks," Selby said. "STARS and Manitoba Health are working together to get it back up in the air as soon as possible, but we need to that safely.
"When the Tories are asking me to ignore the advice of medical professionals, I’m just not willing to do that."
Selby said the province is keeping track of patients that would have been transported by STARS should it have been dispatched. To date, there are 21 incidents which would have been flown by STARS. In each instance, the 21 cases were taken to hospital by land ambulance in comparable time, Selby said.
Originally, provincial officials said the expectation was STARS would resume emergency flights by the end of January. In the meantime, the service conducts regular training flights.
The STARS service, which also operates in Alberta and Saskatchewan, is the only one of its kind in North America known to have been temporarily suspended because of concerns over patient safety.
"We are also looking at what’s working at other places," Selby said. "Part (of the review) is to as well learn from what others are doing right and see what we need to do better here."
Meanwhile, construction of a new helicopter rooftop landing pad continues at the new Diagnostic Imaging Building at Health Sciences Centre. The heliport will provide direct elevator access to the Ann Thomas Building emergency rooms and operating theatres.
Selby said construction should be completed by the end of the year.