Ninety per cent of rural Alberta municipalities help fund STARS air ambulance. (File photo by Advocate staff)

Critical Condition

John White: Looking to the STARS for a solution

B.C. just needs to reach out to get the ball rolling

We’re nearing the end of our six-part investigative series on health care in rural B.C.

Part 5 of Critical Condition ran this week, and the final instalment looking at the future and a path forward to healing is slated for March 29.

Betsy Kline has done an incredible job in researching the data, reaching out and getting access to top-level sources, reporting and eventually writing the stories. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been in Edmonton researching and reporting what Alberta has done over the past 20 years to deliver enhanced health care to rural residents when gaps were identified.

I’ve spoken with a communications representative from Alberta’s health bureau, who provided several key data points and points of entry to dig deeper into potential solutions. I’m set to speak with Edmonton Journal health reporter Keith Gerein on Friday to gain insight and a clinically detached perspective on what Alberta has done right and the challenges they still need to overcome.

Wednesday I spoke with Mike Lamacchia, Vice President Operations, Alberta & Saskatchewan for STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service). He is responsible for the operation of STARS bases across Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as the STARS Emergency Link Centre.

If you are not familiar, STARS is the highly successful and critically lauded air ambulance service that started in Calgary as a grassroots movement led by founder Greg Powell with a group of local physicians in Calgary, with the support from the local Lions Club.

If you’ve read the first five parts of our series, the “What We Do” text from the STARS website will sound incredibly familiar, and appears to be the perfect solution to our coverage gaps:

“In the early 1980s, studies showed about half the deaths due to trauma could have been prevented if patients had received critical care sooner. When Dr. Greg Powell lost a young mother who was being transported from a rural area to Calgary by ground ambulance, he decided something had to change. That’s when he founded STARS.”

“Less than half the population of Western Canada lives in major urban centres and has access to critical care within minutes. For the other half, such access is measured in hours. That can mean the difference between life and death; full recovery or permanent damage.”

“With STARS, those living in rural communities, working in remote areas, travelling on highways or being transported from community hospitals to major medical centres, receive the very best in critical care in helicopters staffed and outfitted as mobile ICUs.”

But STARS is more than the red helicopters. Their integrated physician approach is brilliant. More from their website:

“Members of the STARS air medical crew are on call at each base 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are in the air approximately 10 minutes after accepting a call. Our team of highly skilled medical professionals includes advanced life support paramedics; critical care nurses and transport physicians.”

While STARS came from humble beginnings, they hit a critical mass when a formal agreement was signed.

“It all became monumental in 2010 when we signed a 10-year service agreement with Alberta Health Services,” Lamacchia said. “As of now, 76 per cent of funding comes from corporate philanthropy and private philanthropy and 24 per cent comes from the province.”

I’ll wait here while you read the previous quotes again. Alberta signed a service agreement for full STARS support at 24 per cent.

Here’s the thing: STARS is ready to get B.C. fully up and running. All they need is the government of B.C. to get the ball rolling. STARS has figured it out, and has tweaked and formalized a best-practices approach over many years. The hard part is done.

“If the province of B.C. came to us and asked to help them understand how the model works, that’s our mandate, to help. That’s what we’re here for,” Lamacchia said. “It has to come from them, as an organization we’d be willing to participate in any way that we can help. Our passion is health care in this country. A patient in B.C. or a patient in Alberta is a patient. We need to do our best.”

I’ll have the full quotes and context from my interview with Lamacchia on March 29, but it’s clear to me that the province needs to call him right away to explore potential solutions. There’s no downside to starting a conversation. Make it happen.


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