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STARS back in air once report filed

Province ordered review of air ambulance

STARS was suspended Dec. 2, 2013.

JASON VAN RASSEL/ POSTMEDIA CALGARY HERALD Enlarge Image

STARS was suspended Dec. 2, 2013.

The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopter air ambulance service should be back in the air in the very near future, a spokesman said Wednesday.

That depends on when a revised review of 16 cases STARS has handled is submitted.

"Manitobans deserve to have every confidence in the quality of service we offer," STARS spokesman Colin Fast said. "We're committed to making any changes needed to enhance our service in this province."

The province suspended operations of STARS Dec. 2 after three critical incidents in less than a year, including the death of a female patient with cardiac arrest three days earlier. Each incident involved issues with intubation and proper delivery of oxygen.

The province ordered an external review of 16 cases involving STARS and contracted Dr. Stephen Wheeler of the B.C. Ambulance Service Air Ambulance Program to do it. Wheeler submitted his initial report in December, but STARS officials balked, citing several inaccuracies.

"We do have concerns about the draft report from Dr. Wheeler, and we're providing additional information required to finish his work," Fast said.

For example, the draft report -- leaked to CBC -- cited a case where a female STARS patient ran out of oxygen on a flight and later died. STARS says when the crew recognized the tank was low, they changed it and they never ran out of oxygen.

Wheeler's report also said the nurses and paramedics on STARS lack adequate training and experience, compared to other air medical transport programs across the country, to work in the air medical environment. STARS disputes that, saying the training nurses and paramedics get in Manitoba is the same in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the service also operates.

"Providing excellent patient care, with an emphasis on safety, will always be our top priority," Fast said.

The 16 cases wheeler reviewed were jointly selected by both STARS and Manitoba Health. When completed, information from the report that doesn't infringe on patient confidentiality will be released publicly

The STARS service in Manitoba is the only one of its kind in North America known to have been temporarily suspended because of concerns over patient safety.

STARS has also operated in eastern B.C. for a number of years from its Alberta base in Grande Prairie, flying critical-care patients to trauma hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton.

Its presence in B.C. has opened a debate whether a version of the not-for-profit STARS service should expand into northern B.C. instead of the publicly funded B.C. Ambulance Service Air Ambulance service, which contracts out medical helicopter operations to private firms.

The same debate has been heard in Manitoba, including whether the provincial funding of STARS could be better spent on improving ground emergency medical services in rural Manitoba.

The Selinger government and STARS signed a 10-year agreement, worth $10 million per year, in February 2012 for the Alberta-based organization to provide helicopter air ambulance services in southern Manitoba. STARS is also funded through corporate, community and individual donations.

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