Health Equity in Motion


Photo © Courtesy of Ornge

As COVID-19 continues to spread, Ontario’s air ambulance and critical care transport service is adapting to the healthcare sector’s ever-changing needs. In Ontario’s rural and remote regions, communities often do not have access to the same medical resources as more populous urban areas. In these regions, even one patient with COVID-19 poses a considerable risk to small hospitals and clinics, many of which do not have the ventilators needed for treatment.

Ornge makes an immense impact in these areas, transporting hundreds of sick patients across Ontario, many of which require specialized care. With a fleet of 8 planes, 12 helicopters, and 13 land ambulances, Ornge pilots and paramedics work tirelessly to ensure that patients across Ontario can be safely transported to potentially life-saving treatment.

Throughout the pandemic, Ornge has been boosting its capacity to transport critically sick patients and vital medical supplies, and has been striving to ensure culturally appropriate and inclusive patient care. Three Ornge front-line staff members take us behind the scenes and share what it’s really like to transport COVID-19 patients across the province.

Howie Isaac Photo © Courtesy of Ornge
Heidi Hanney
Heidi Hanney Photo © Courtesy of Ornge
Drohn Bhandari Photo © Courtesy of Ornge

What are the unique challenges of transporting a COVID-19 patient, particularly in the North?

Howie Isaac, Paramedic – Moosonee, Ontario: Geographical distances pose the most difficult barrier to accessing timely medical care for remote communities in the north. Depending on the transport mode for medevac, response time, patient assessment, preparation/stabilization, transport could take up to 8 hours to receive specialized care.

As well, medical facilities often do not have appropriate infectious isolation rooms to limit facility spread. Many professionals travel from COVID hot spots or out-of-province to provide services in our communities. As a community member, bearing this in mind along with the high-risk exposure occupation, due diligence is a must to avoid or prevent possible community spread, considering there is only one grocery store that we all have to gather provisions.

Heidi Hanney, Paramedic – Moosonee, Ontario: Access to healthcare services is normally very limited in remote northern communities, and any serious injury or illness cases require a medevac to a hospital. The movement of patients from remote communities can become a logistical challenge based on where they need to be sent, bed availability, weather, aircraft availability, and level of care required during transport. As flight paramedics, our shifts often require us to travel to various points across the province, including “hotspots.” A COVID-19 infection not only puts us and our families at risk, but also the patients and remote communities that we travel to.

Another unique challenge, particularly during this pandemic, is the inability to read one’s facial expressions and give a simple smile. Constantly wearing masks has made me conscious about not being able to offer a friendly smile to a patient, co-worker, or other health care worker we encounter. These small gestures may seem insignificant, but a friendly smile can often reassure a frightened patient, parent, caregiver or even a co-worker who has been having a bad day.

How does your role at Ornge help contribute to health equity for remote Northern Indigenous communities?

Drohn Bhandari, Fixed Wing Airplane Pilot – Thunder Bay, Ontario: Our operation greatly prioritizes bringing the highest quality of care to patients regardless of their background or where they come from in this province. I feel grateful to be part of an operation where we can deliver this promise daily. The spontaneous nature of my role allows me to fly into various areas of the province, which is quite exciting and rewarding.

Dr. Homer Tien, President and CEO: In the North, many of the communities are a substantial distance from major regional hospitals and tertiary care centres. Some of the remote Indigenous communities are only accessible by air, so to get a CAT scan or to see a specialist, patients have to get on an airplane. We are an important part of their ability to access health services.

How does diversity contribute to culturally appropriate and inclusive patient care?

Howie Isaac, Paramedic: Many of us go into the industry because we want to help people, and these values guide our practice long into our careers. Adding a familiar face or a person who comes from a similar walk of life brings trust to the relationship. It is a win-win scenario for better outcomes. We learn and grow by working professionally alongside people that come from different places and backgrounds. I have the valuable opportunity to serve and represent proudly as a Moose Cree First Nation member.

Heidi Hanney, Paramedic: A diverse workforce can benefit patient care. People with the same or similar backgrounds might better relate to a particular patient’s background and better understand their situation and fears. Taking the time to listen and understand someone’s background can help us be culturally appropriate and inclusive while providing patient care. By providing culturally appropriate and inclusive patient care, we are tending to their medical needs and their social needs hoping to make their transport and care a little less stressful.

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Staff at Ornge work tirelessly around the clock every day to ensure the patients of Ontario receive the best care available.


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