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STARS set to expand flights

Will carry critical cases within weeks

Manitoba's helicopter ambulance service will likely resume flying critical patients from rural hospitals to Winnipeg in a matter of weeks.

Dr. Brian Postl, who heads up a clinical oversight committee reviewing the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS), said he will soon draft recommendations to Manitoba Health Minister Erin Selby on what standards STARS and its air crews have to meet before being allowed to fly full time again.

"My guess is that they should be at least beginning the process of inter-facility transports in the pretty near future, measured in weeks, certainly not months," Postl said.

'They've been very co-operative'

-- Dr. Brian Postl, of STARS

"It's soon."

STARS was temporarily suspended from flying medical flights last Dec. 2 following the death of a woman after an inter-hospital flight in late November. It was the third serious case in a year involving the Alberta-based helicopter air ambulance service. On March 7, STARS was allowed to fly again by the province, but only in response to emergency scene calls.

Since being reinstated, STARS has only flown six missions in Manitoba compared with dozens of flights in Alberta and Saskatchewan over the same period.

Postl said STARS has already met some conditions, such as upgrading training for its staff and making its senior medical officials available for consultations.

"They've been very co-operative," said Postl, who is also the University of Manitoba's dean of medicine. "We've talked a little bit about some aspects like accreditation and specific issues like children. (Transporting children) is very low volume, but it requires a very high skill set."

During a STARS inter-hospital flight last May, a breathing tube became dislodged from a two-year-old boy who was being flown to Winnipeg from Brandon for tests following a seizure. The boy was in an induced coma and could not breathe on his own. When he landed in Winnipeg, the dislodged breathing tube was discovered. It's believed he was deprived of oxygen and severely brain damaged. His case is the subject of a lawsuit.

Postl also said the committee and STARS have discussed ways in which quality of medical care by air crews can be better monitored.

The clinical oversight committee was created after Dr. Stephen Wheeler, medical director of B.C. Air Ambulance and Critical Care Transport, reviewed 16 cases involving STARS Manitoba. In his report, Wheeler highlighted eight concerns, including that STARS' Manitoba nurses and paramedics required further training and experience to work in the Manitoba air-medical environment and in the special needs of pediatric patients.

Wheeler was hired by the province after STARS was suspended in December.

Postl said Manitobans should see a greater benefit from STARS when it's able to land on a rooftop landing pad 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.

Construction should be completed by the end of the year. Currently, STARS lands at the Winnipeg airport and patients are transported by ambulance to hospital.

"I think the key issue to me right now, frankly, is how much that helipad will improve response and access times," Postl said.

In March, the province's former auditor general, Carol Bellringer, said the government did not comply with public tendering principles and policies when it signed a 10-year deal with STARS.

Bellringer also said the government "performed inadequate procedures" to assess if it would obtain value for money from the STARS contract. The Health Department estimates total STARS costs over the 10 years at $159 million.

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