Air Creebec and the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay have signed an agreement to establish a medical air charter to transport patients from remote First Nations communities of James Bay, Quebec, to Val-D’Or and Montreal. Starting October 26, 2015, one of three specially equipped Dash-8-100 turboprop planes will operate a service called the Cree Patient Air Charter, flying four times a week between Chisasibi Airport (YKU) on the eastern James Bay coast, and, on alternate days, the cities of Val-d’Or (YVO) and Montreal (YUL).
People living in northern Quebec are often required to travel south when they are sick. Even by air, this is a journey that can take all day. Chisasibi Hospital is the only hospital in the James Bay region of northern Quebec, an area of about 450,000 km2 of sparsely populated boreal forest that is home to the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. Chisasibi hospital has an emergency department and in-patient ward with 29 beds, but is not equipped or staffed to offer services such as delivering babies, surgery, cancer treatment, or advanced diagnostics like MRI. For these types of services, patients must leave the region, sometimes for extended periods of time.
“By having a dedicated patient charter, our patients will travel more quickly and comfortably to their appointments, specialist consultations, diagnostic tests and surgeries,” says Chisasibi physician Dr. Darlene Kitty, President of the Council of Physicians, Dentists and Pharmacists of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB).
The CBHSSJB, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Social Services of Quebec, operates Chisasibi Hospital and smaller clinics in each of the nine remote Cree First Nation (Eeyou/Eenou) communities of Eeyou Istchee, with a total population of 17,150 in 2014. The CBHSSJB’s Cree Patient Services department coordinates travel, lodging and medical appointments for patients who must leave their home community to obtain needed health services, usually in Val-d’Or, Montreal or Chibougamau. Between April 2014 and March 2015, 8,427 patients were sent for medical treatment outside their home community. On a typical day, the CBHSSJB is responsible for approximately 300 Cree patients and family members, who are away from home for medical reasons.
Air Creebec has adapted three Bombardier Dash-8-100 turboprop aircraft to accommodate a stretcher and in-flight auxiliary nurse. Along with patients, who may be accompanied by a family member in some cases, the shuttle will be available to transport medical personnel and sensitive cargo such as blood samples and medical supplies. “Air Creebec are indeed very pleased with the agreement with the Cree Health Board,” says Matthew Happyjack, President of Air Creebec. “We could see that the Cree Health Board had enough daily volume of passengers that it would make sense to run a charter instead of sending them on the regular commercial flights. Our clients will now know that their loved ones will be given the best care and service possible. They will experience the comfort of an Air Creebec charter.”
At Montreal’s Trudeau Airport, the Cree Patient Shuttle will take off and land at Air Creebec’s FBO terminal, allowing passengers to bypass the crowds and lineups of the main terminal. Passengers will benefit from swift check-in procedures and personalized attention.
The Cree Patient Air Charter is expected to generate significant and permanent cost savings for the Quebec healthcare system, since the passengers using the shuttle were formerly travelling on regular commercial flights at a higher per capita cost per trip. While the shuttle is not designed for medical emergencies, in some cases it may enable the CBHSSJB to avoid the use of more expensive air ambulances.
“This project was initiated by our Board of Directors and the Chairperson, Bella Moses Petawabano,” says Dr. Yv Bonnier-Viger, Executive Director of the CBHSSJB. “The reason we are doing this is for the patients – for their quality of life. The fact that this is also a more cost effective approach is what will make it sustainable.” The Cree Patient Air Charter is part of a strategy to improve support for patients during their medical trips. “We also want to improve the quality of the lodgings and food services for patients in Val-d’Or and Montreal,” continues Bonnier-Viger. At the same time, telehealth initiatives such as remote ultrasound and tele-psychiatry are helping reduce the need to travel outside the territory for certain patients. The CBHSSJB is also investing in bringing more specialized services to the north, either permanently or on a rotating basis, rather than making patients travel south. For example, the opening of a dialysis clinic in Mistissini in 2014 enabled some patients to return home after years of living in Montreal.
The maiden flight of the Cree Patient Air Charter service will take off for Montreal following a ceremony and blessing of the plane by Chisasibi elder Eliza Webb at Chisasibi Airport on October 26, 2015. The Cree Patient Air Charter marks the beginning of a new era of more comfortable, convenient, and efficient travel for Cree patients and their families.