Background: Canada’s northern territories are characterized by small scattered populations separated by long distances. A major challenge to health care delivery is the reliance on costly patient transportation, especially emergency air evacuations (medevacs).
Purpose: Describe the patterns, costs and providers’ perspectives on patient transportation, and identify potential factors associated with utilization and performance.
Methods: Secondary analyses of medical travel databases and an online survey of nurses in the communities and physicians in regional centres.
Results: The proportion of the population living within 100 km of a hospital was 83% in Yukon, 63% in Northwest Territories (NWT), and 21% in Nunavut. In Nunavut and NWT, road access to a hospital was limited to residents of the cities where the hospitals were located, with the rest relying exclusively on air travel. Medevac rates varied among the three territories: 0.9 trips/1000 residents/year in Yukon, 32 trips/1000 in NWT, and 53/1000 in Nunavut. In Yukon, all communities except one are road-accessible whereas in Nunavut, no communities are connected by roads. The relative absence of roads is a major reason why the patient transportation costs are high in Nunavut and NWT. The rate of medevacs originating from the remote, air-accessible-only communitiesvaried greatly, which cannot be explained by the air distance from the nearest hospital, population size, or frequency of health centre visits. Medical travel accounts for 5% of the health expenditures in NWT and 20% in Nunavut. A medevac on average costs $218 per person per year in NWT and $700 in Nunavut. The providers survey detected only 66% or less in support of statements that nurses in the communities received timely access to clinical advice, whereas only 50% of physicians agreed with statements that the clinical information provided by the nurses were clear.
Conclusion: Patient transportation, especially emergency air evacuations, is an essential but costly component of the health care system serving Canada’s North. It is the “glue” that binds an extensive network of facilities staffed by different categories of health professionals. While system design is largely dictated by geography, addressing human factors such as interprofessional communication is important for improving the system’s effectiveness. This study is primarily descriptive and it points to additional areas for improved understanding of the performance of the system.