Doctors warn privatization of air ambulance may compromise patient safety

A group of Manitoba doctors who lead Manitoba’s Lifeflight air ambulance service will meet with the health minister this week to urge against privatization of the program.

'Privatization removes an invaluable safeguard from our program and leaves us all with serious concerns'

The inside of a Lifeflight air ambulance, which will now be overseen by Shared Health Services, rather than the province. (Government of Manitoba)

A group of Manitoba doctors who run Manitoba's Lifeflight air ambulance service will meet with the health minister this week to urge against privatization of the program. 

The 16 physicians signed a strongly worded letter to Minister Cameron Friesen, dated Oct. 20, 2018, opposing the government's plans to privatize air service, currently operated by Manitoba Government Air Services. They are to meet with the minister this week to discuss their rationale.

"We have serious concerns about the impact on patient care and provider safety that will arise from the proposed privatization model for Manitoba Government Air Services," states the letter. 

"Privatization removes an invaluable safeguard from our program and leaves us all with serious concerns that have not been addressed."

According to the letter and a report commissioned by the MGEU, the Lifeflight service has operated without any serious incidents or Transport Canada events for more than 30 years, something both groups fear will be compromised should the program shift to a for-profit model. 

"Our pilots and engineering staff are exceptional and of the highest caliber, and that we have never felt unsafe a single time that we have set forth to a remote community on one of our Cessna Citation jet aircraft," states the letter.

"We, the medical staff of Lifeflight Manitoba air ambulance, wish to make it clear that we are not prepared to work in an environment that provides substandard patient care and increases risk to patients and providers." 

In July, the Manitoba government issued a request for proposals to privatize the Lifeflight air ambulance and general transport services.

The letter outlines four primary concerns; first, that the introduction of financial incentives will put pressure on crews "to take risks for the sake of maintaining profit margins," to the possible detriment of patients and medical personnel on board. It suggests that privatization will delay care, as the switch limits the type of planes permitted by Transport Canada to operate for business, further limiting the type of runways they can land on. 

Two-tiered system alleged

"We object to this change, as every community in our province that exists at the end of a gravel runway will suffer transport delays and delayed arrival of critical care services," states the letter.

The letter also suggests that those delays and reduction of service to northern Indigenous communities "will be viewed as discriminatory," and suggests an absence of "medical consultation."

The fourth criticism alleges privatization will create a two-tiered system in which southern residents have an advantage over those in the North and will receive faster service in the event of a medical emergency.

"We are working to maintain a vital health service that achieves good value for Manitobans, an effort the previous government failed to ever mount," Friesen responded, in a statement to CBC. 

"Our government is interested in hearing from these physicians and look forward to reassuring them that we would never take a step that compromises the level of service Lifeflight offers in any way."

Dr. Marcus Blouw, one of the 16 signatories, declined comment on the letter until after the meeting with Friesen.

'Vital public service'

"These doctors and their years of medical experience should be taken seriously, and the rush to privatize this vital public service should be put on ice," wrote Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, in a statement. 

"This letter reinforces what we have been saying for months now, based on the comprehensive research and expert analysis in the Breakwater Report — that this rush to privatize emergency air ambulance service is short-sighted and risky. The government should put patients first, and focus on improving this critical public service."

The leader of the NDP said Lifeflight responds to everything from a person's heart attack in a remote community, to support for someone in Dauphin who might need a ventilator en route to hospital, to the transport of pediatric cardiac patients to Edmonton.

"There may be times when it's not profitable to run an air ambulance," Wab Kinew told CBC News.

"If the government wants to save money, they shouldn't be looking to save a dollar on the most high priority trips in which these Lifeflight planes are used to keep people, and in some cases kids, alive while they get life-saving treatment."