Northeast air ambulance pilot project eyed for Northwest

It’s a scenario often experienced by medical patients in northern and rural communities – bouncing around uncomfortably in the back of an ambulance over long distances while being transferred between care facilities or while being rushed to a hospital for emergency treatment.

But a year-long pilot project in northeastern B.C. which uses an air ambulance instead of vehicles could, if proven successful, could one day be located in the northwest.

Since June, the BC Emergency Health Services Commission, which operates the provincial ambulance service, has based a fixed-wing air ambulance in Fort St. John to service the northeast.

The aim is to provide faster transfers for both urgent and non-urgent patients, instead of solely relying on ground ambulances, explained Barb Fitzsimmons, the chief operating officer of the emergency health services commission who toured the region the end of November.

Fitzsimmons acknowledged the uncomfortable nature of being in the back of an ambulance, which is essentially a truck chassis, particularly when being transported long distances.

She described the experience as “cruel and unusual punishment” when considering road distances between northwestern communities and, depending upon circumstances, the trek down Hwy16 to the region’s largest hospital in Prince George.

In the northeast, when required, the aircraft is dispatched from Fort St. John to pick up patients in other northeastern communities such as Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson and Tumbler Ridge for transport between medical facilities or, in the case of emergencies, for transport to Fort St. John which has the largest hospital in the northeast or further south to the University Hospital of Northern B.C.

By road it’s nearly 170 kilometres between Tumbler Ridge and Fort St. John, for instance, a distance that can take two hours under normal driving conditions.

“This not only benefits the patient experience but there’s less wear and tear and it’s safer for our crews,” said Fitzsimmons of eliminating the time spent travelling long distances by road, thus increasing the efficiency of service.

“We’re constantly looking at our service, how our patients get there,” she added.

How and where a fixed wing aircraft may be based in the northwest has yet to be determined pending the results of the northeastern pilot project and follow up decisions.

The pilot project will evaluate wait times patients may experience when transported by ground instead of air.

It will also consider the benefits of having ambulances not being taken out of service for long transfers.

The provincial air ambulance service maintains four helicopters and six airplanes in addition to the aircraft now based in Fort St. John.

To date, the northeastern pilot project is transporting approximately 40 patients a month.

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