The Manitoba government has grounded STARS air ambulance flights in the province while officials investigate the death of a woman who died after being transported by the service.
On Monday afternoon, the province announced that the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society would be temporarily suspended on the advice of medical professionals.
Health Minister Erin Selby told reporters she has instructed her department to suspend STARS flights after concerns were raised about the woman's death.
According to officials, the female patient went into cardiac arrest late in the evening on Nov. 28 and was taken from somewhere in the province's southern health region to Winnipeg for further care.
Provincial officials said the woman had been cleared for takeoff, but died after landing in Winnipeg.
The province has deemed her death as a critical incident and officials are now investigating to determine what sort of oxygen the woman was given and if it was adequate.
More specifically, investigators will determine what, if anything, happened on board that had an impact on the woman’s death.
'Basic medical practices and basic medical advice appears not to have been followed.'- Gerry Delorme, Manitoba Health
Gerry Delorme, Manitoba Health's executive director of health emergency management, joined Selby at the news conference and told reporters that based on this incident and two others, "basic medical practices and basic medical advice appears not to have been followed."
The province is also having an external reviewer look at 15 cases.
Founded in Alberta in 1985, STARS operates a helicopter air ambulance service in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In 2011, Manitoba signed a 10-year agreement with the society that would see the helicopter and its crew provide support to the province. Since signing the agreement, the air ambulance has flown nearly 700 missions in the province.
The suspension only applies in Manitoba, and the STARS review could take several weeks.
Officials said a contingency plan is in place to deal with cases that require an air ambulance. Lifeflight and a basic air ambulance service will be expanded into Manitoba's southern communities.
Manitoba Health currently operates 24 basic air ambulances and two Lifeflight jets that are staffed by a physician, officials added.
STARS will co-operate with review
STARS spokesperson Colin Fast said officials will co-operate with the province's review of its operations.
"We'll be completely open and transparent with them, and we look forward to dealing with the review as soon as we can," he told CBC News.
Fast said while he expects STARS helicopters will be back in the air soon, the service has never been suspended like this before.
"This hasn't happened at least in the recent past," he said.
"I mean, we have gone through periods where [we've] basically gone out of service due to, you know, weather or mechanical reasons for a short period of time. But no, not an order like this."
STARS has saved dozens of lives since it began permanent operations in Manitoba, Fast added.
But the opposition Progressive Conservatives accused the NDP government of failing Manitobans by signing a contract with STARS without tending a contract for air ambulance services first.
"I was shocked, mainly because a few years ago when the government went into a contract with STARS, we spent hours and hours and hours asking the government questions," Tory deputy leader Myrna Driedger said.
Driedger said she is skeptical that any review of STARS will improve service.
Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard agreed that the government should have issued a tender for contracts instead of signing on with STARS.
Gerrard called on the province to disclose its full investigation to the public.
"People's confidence in STARS is shaken a little bit with this sort of incident," he said.
"It needs to be restored with a full public report and assurance that whatever the problem is, is corrected."
Toddler's case puts spotlight on air ambulance
Earlier this year, the society became the subject of a lawsuit after a Manitoba toddler suffered brain damage shortly after being transported by STARS.
- Parents sue air ambulance over Manitoba toddler's injury
- Boy, 2, clings to life after oxygen loss in ambulance transfer
Two-year-old Morgan Moar Campbell was picked up by a STARS crew in Brandon on May 2 and rushed to Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital.
He was sedated during the flight and had a breathing tube inserted in his throat. The tube somehow came out while he was being moved from the helicopter to an ambulance in Winnipeg, according to Morgan’s parents, Blair Campbell and Emily Moar.
Morgan suffered brain damage as a result.
The family's lawyer, Robert Tapper, told CBC News the family was appalled to hear there are now three critical incidents involving STARS that are under review.
"When this is the sort of thing that causes the health authorities to actually have to go to the very unusual step of suspending them, there's a systemic issue at play here," said Tapper.
"Someone is not watching. Someone is not delegated to watch. Something is happening in a systemic way to cause this kind of injury."
Tapper said the family is "very nervous" because they believe their child was victimized, "and there seems to be some credence to that belief."
Manitoba Health is currently reviewing the incident.