Lifeflight doctors speak out against privatizing air ambulance service

The entire cohort of doctors responsible for operating Manitoba's Lifeflight program seems poised to quit should the government privatize its air ambulance services.

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This article was published 02/11/2018 (1548 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The entire cohort of doctors responsible for operating Manitoba’s Lifeflight program seems poised to quit should the government privatize its air ambulance services.

The Free Press obtained a copy of an Oct. 20 letter sent to Health Minister Cameron Friesen, which outlines the concerns of the 16 doctors.

The letter offers four main critiques of the Tory government’s plan to privatize Lifeflight, and emphasizes — in bold lettering — in its conclusion: “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.”

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Life Flight vehicle near building at 900 Ferry Rd. The seventeen doctors responsible for the province's Lifeflight program have penned a strongly-worded letter to the health minister criticizing the government's RFP looking to privatize the air ambulance service and are threatening to quit if it happens.

In July, the Manitoba government took a step towards privatizing air services, publishing a request for proposals, so companies can bid on the contracts to operate Lifeflight and the province’s fire-fighting water bombers. It’s unclear if the contracts have yet been awarded.

Lifeflight is a 24-hour air ambulance service, and its medical staff perform between 400 and 500 trips per year. Staff care for critically ill or injured Manitobans in areas outside a 200-kilometre radius of Winnipeg.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler has previously doubled down on the province’s drive to privatize, despite critics calling the move unsafe and pointing out gravel runways in various rural and northern community airports would prevent commercially-licensed planes from landing.

In the letter, the doctors voiced similar objections and noted that — under a public model — Lifeflight has operated incident-free for 33 years.

“When our service provider switches from a publicly owned entity to private industry, there will invariably be pressure on crews to take risks for the sake of maintaining profit margins. Our program was built on the understanding that we would be supported by a publicly owned platform, where crew and patient safety was always the utmost priority,” the group wrote.

“Our main concern first and foremost is for the safety of care providers and patients who will be flying on these aircraft. Privatization removes an invaluable safeguard from our program and leaves us all with serious concerns that have not been addressed.”

The doctors also alleged: “The willful acceptance of slower transport times for critical care patients in remote northern communities creates two tiers of care in Manitoba: one for the north and one for the south.”

The Lifeflight team asked for a “priority” meeting with Friesen nearly two weeks ago. It hasn’t happened yet.

Dr. Renate Singh, who directs the Lifeflight program, said her cohort didn’t want to conduct interviews with media before sitting down with the minister, so as to give him time to respond to its concerns.

The Free Press asked for an interview with Friesen, but received a statement by email instead.

“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 wrote.

“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,” he added, noting his office plans to reach out and schedule a meeting early next week.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government ought to heed the Lifeflight doctors’ warning.

“These are highly-trained physicians, they’re specialists in a variety of areas and they’re raising the alarm here,” Kinew said.

“If you’ve got the experts telling you that privatization is going to hurt health care, then, as a government, I think you’ve got to listen and reconsider the plans.”

Twitter: @_jessbu


Updated on Friday, November 2, 2018 7:04 PM CDT: headline update

Updated on Friday, November 2, 2018 7:14 PM CDT: Updates headline

Updated on Monday, November 5, 2018 10:18 AM CST: Corrects number of doctors

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