A year of rebuilding at ORNGE

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ORNGEWith a helmet on and securely strapped into my seat in the back of an air ambulance, we lifted off from the London airport one morning on an early spring day.

It had been years – decades, even — since I treated a patient in the back of a helicopter, but on this occasion, I was along as an observer.

Our crew consisted of two highly-qualified flight paramedics and two experienced helicopter pilots, each of whom have devoted their careers to helping some of the most critically ill and injured patients in Ontario.  En route to a call for an on-scene response, we soon encountered some unforeseen bad weather. Our pilots made a responsible decision:  conditions were unsafe for flying.  We would have to turn back, with the land EMS crew responsible for completing the transport.

Back at the base, we soon received another call for service, this time to transport a critically ill patient from a small Southwestern Ontario hospital to a larger facility in London capable of providing the specialized care required. While the poor weather did not allow for a flight, we departed with an Ornge critical care land ambulance instead.  From the moment our paramedics arrived at the patient’s bedside to the receiving bed at London Health Sciences Centre, they provided exemplary care and ensured the patient reached her destination safely. Their actions that day made me proud to call them colleagues.

My “rideout” at the London base sums up many of the issues I’ve encountered in my first year as President and CEO of Ornge: The logistical and technical challenges of delivering our service; the pride and professionalism demonstrated by our staff; the collaboration among multiple partners throughout the transport process; and finally, the promise of a highly functioning air ambulance system for the people of Ontario. As I reflect back on the year that was, I believe we have made progress but we have some way to go.

Sadly, 2013 will also be remembered for the tragic events of May 31, when an Ornge air ambulance helicopter crashed in Moosonee, claiming the lives of Captain Don Filliter, First Officer Jacques Dupuy, and Flight Paramedics Chris Snowball and Dustin Dagenais. With the help of the EMS community and other partners, we were able to honour their memory in a dignified and solemn ceremony. The accident touched each member of the Ornge team in a profound way, and we continue to hold the memory of these men in our hearts.

This year was about breaking with the past.  To that end, we came a long way in dealing with a variety of issues inherited from previous leadership.  We began by completing and installing an interim solution to concerns over the configuration of our AW139 helicopter medical interiors, with considerable progress made toward a permanent solution.

We completed the sale of assets that no longer fit into the organization’s plans, including two surplus AW139 helicopters that had been in storage and were not being used for patient care.  In dealing with these legacy issues, we are committed to using taxpayer dollars wisely and providing value for money.

Some important operational improvements are off the ground. To enhance the safety of patients and crews, we are installing solar lighting at 91 unlit helipads across Ontario, with further ongoing study on additional technologies that will further augment the safety of our aircraft.

The implementation of a new computer-aided dispatch (or CAD) system is also underway, which will help us more efficiently dispatch our crews and improve our ability to gather data and information with the added plus of giving updates to hospitals.

Beyond our day-to-day improvements, we are looking to the future.  I firmly believe if you don’t know where you are going, you are unlikely to get there. As a result, much of the past year has been devoted to developing a renewed vision for the organization and mapping out plans for a sustainable, high-quality air ambulance system.

We began the process by defining our core mission – providing care for our patients while transporting them safely to the healthcare they need – and updating the organization’s values: Safety, Excellence, Integrity, Preparedness, and Compassion.  All of this took place with the input of our staff.

I see three broadly-defined areas worthy of specific concentration. First, we need to increase transports that improve patient outcomes. This means ensuring we respond to the right calls with the right vehicles, freeing-up resources for patients who need our helicopters, airplanes and land ambulances the most.

Second, it is essential to improve the integration of the patient transport process.  In practical terms, this means simplifying and streamlining the process, and opening up new avenues for sharing information among partners so hospitals and other stakeholders have fewer steps in arranging a transport.

And finally, we need to devise a financial plan to ensure the long-term viability of the air ambulance system.

Naturally, these are issues worthy of considerable debate and discussion. To encourage an open dialogue on these and other topics, Ornge hosted a two-day strategic planning session in September. We invited a number of stakeholder representatives – including unions, hospitals, LHINS, and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care – to offer their perspectives and input to help us formulate a roadmap going forward. The result will be a three year plan for the organization which will be implemented beginning next year.

It is time for the next chapter in the Ornge story to be written. We still have much work to do in making that happen. Change takes time, but with a revitalized and reenergized organization, we can fulfill our commitment to our patients and to all Ontarians.