Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ontario's air ambulance system frustrating doctors, politicians

An Ornge helicopter is seen in this file photo.
Photograph by: Chris Mikula/The Ottawa Citizen , The Windsor Star

WINDSOR, Ont. — An Ornge air ambulance that went to the wrong hospital earlier this month caused such a long delay that doctors at Windsor Regional Hospital rushed a newborn to Detroit instead of to nearby London, Ont., for emergency surgery.

Incidents like the one on Feb. 3 happen frequently enough that Windsor Regional has given doctors the go-ahead to send patients to Detroit if they think the air ambulance system will take too long to transport them to an Ontario hospital.

Health Minister Deb Matthews has faced calls for her resignation amid allegations of financial mismanagement and operational troubles at Ornge.

The CEO of Windsor Regional said hospital staff waited for four-and-a-half hours after calling for an air ambulance to transport the baby boy to a London hospital for emergency neonatal surgery, which can't be performed in Windsor. David Musyj said the doctors who sent the infant to Detroit made the right call. "They did a very appropriate, commendable plan with this particular patient and knock on wood, this little guy comes home."

Opposition parties have been relentlessly hammering the Liberals over Ornge. The Ontario Provincial Police is investigating some of its financial dealings.

Provincial Conservative member Frank Klees told the Ontario legislature on Thursday that a whistleblower at Ornge has told him of 13 incidents, which he said were part of a pattern of potentially deadly operational problems at Ornge.

Klees told the legislature that the information obtained from the whistleblower shows there were four consecutive nights in London and three in Sudbury when the air ambulances were grounded because there weren't enough pilots to fly them.

New Democrat member Taras Natyshak expressed frustration in the legislature Thursday with the difficulties investigating Ornge.

"That's no accident. Ornge has been designed that way," Natyshak said. "Why did the (Liberal Premier Dalton) McGuinty government design Ornge to be free from public scrutiny?"

Musyj said Windsor Regional decided last month to issue a written memo to clarify a long-held, commonly understood practice at the hospital: patients who can't wait for an air ambulance go to Detroit, regardless of what the central dispatching system says. So far, Musyj said OHIP has always covered the cost of the cross-border transfers, but if the province ever fights the hospital on it, Windsor Regional will foot the bill.

"What we're saying to our clinicians is, you make the call and we will support you as an organization. And that's very important. Clinicians need to hear that, because otherwise, arguably they're stuck in the middle. And we don't want them to feel that way," he said. "We do not want money to be the driving decision maker here. We want the patients' needs to drive the decision."

In 2011, Ornge transported nine patients from the Windsor Regional to other health-care facilities in Canada. An additional 52 were transported to Michigan hospitals.

So many patients are sent to Michigan because it's close, not because of Ornge's troubles, Musyj said. But other places in Ontario don't have that option.

"Not every community is Windsor. They don't have that safety valve. When they need to transport a patient out of their community, they need to use Ornge."

Musyj said he welcomes the police investigation into Ornge. "We have to now bring back confidence in the system, the air ambulance system in this province. And bringing the OPP in to investigate the financial misadventures is very appropriate, needs to happen."

Meanwhile, the baby boy is still in hospital in Detroit, where he will remain until his condition is stable enough to transport him back to London or Windsor. His twin sister is still in the neonatal intensive care unit of Windsor Regional, where she is doing well, Musyj said.

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