A former Alberta paramedic says Alberta Health Services (AHS) is sacrificing rural health care to ensure a higher standard of care in Calgary and Edmonton. His comments come just days after it was announced that AHS had declared a red alert in Calgary because no ambulances were available to answer calls.
“There’s no consideration for code red in rural areas,” George Porter told 770 CHQR’s Danielle Smith.
Alberta’s health care provider denied the charge that it ignores rural areas, adding that higher call volumes and population density in Calgary and Edmonton simply put more strain on the system. On top of that, AHS admits, it often takes more time to reach rural patients.
“Alberta is a large province,” said AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck. “There are isolated parts of the province that take time to get into.”
LISTEN: George Porter points to problems dispatching ambulances in rural Alberta
Porter, who was a paramedic in Alberta for 43 years, has been an outspoken critic of AHS.
He told 770 CHQR that his longest response time when he worked as a paramedic was one hour and 17 minutes.
“It’s not a Calgary problem; it’s a province-wide problem,” he said when asked about the most recent red alert in Calgary on Thursday.
MLA David Swann echoed those concerns when speaking Monday about ambulance wait times.
“I hear some pretty ridiculous stories about EMS coming all the way across the province, in some cases, for a condition that should have been dealt with more locally, but there was insufficient EMS staff.”
Sandbeck said AHS does move ambulances from neighbouring communities to help provide coverage during busy periods, as occurred during the red alert last week in Calgary. But he said the aim is to have those ambulances back in those communities as “quickly as possible.”
“Does that, at times, create holes in the system? Yeah, it does, at times,” he said. “But we do our very best to provide coverage all over the province.”
Porter said AHS’ practice of “plucking ambulances out of rural areas” puts patients in those communities at risk.
“Let me paint you a picture here,” he said. “A code red is over when you have one ambulance clear off the table to respond for an entire city.”
“You have all these rural units and every ambulance in the city tied up. And so finally you get one ambulance that becomes available at Foothills hospital, and that huge rural area, as well as the city – that one ambulance has to cover that entire thing.”
“Is patient care compromised? Absolutely, it’s compromised,” he added.
Swann agrees that patients are suffering and he says paramedics are also suffering.
“Every indication is that it is affecting not only patients’ risks but also the EMS staff risks, who are trying desperately to get to places where they shouldn’t perhaps be trying– because of inefficient use of resources,” he said.
Swann is calling on AHS to release its data on red alerts. He wants to know how often red alerts are called and how long each red alert remains in effect. He told Global News he is currently waiting on the results of a FOIP request.
Sandbeck said that when red alerts do occur they’re in place for only a short period of time – only a few seconds or minutes. And while he wouldn’t comment on the frequency of these alerts, he did suggest that it would be “a lot of data to sort through.”
“I don’t know if there’s value to that at this point,” he said.
But Swann said something needs to be done.
“Something has to change here and it may be that some heads have to roll in the EMS hierarchy,” he said.
Swann told Global News triage wait times are also having an impact.
AHS data released Monday by the Alberta Liberals shows paramedics are having to wait a median time of one hour before transferring a patient into a nurse’s care. Swann suggests that adds up to about $20 million in lost time.
LISTEN: Danielle Smith takes a call from a listener concerned about ambulance wait times
Porter said ambulances in rural areas are also frequently tied up on inter-hospital transports that can put them out of commission for hours.
“Here’s a real scenario: the ambulance out of Vulcan gets sent to Calgary to take a patient from Vulcan hospital to Calgary to have insoles fitted for their shoes and you’re gone for four to six hours for a wait and return,” he said.
“So that’s four to six hours where there is no ambulance coverage in that large rural geographical area.”
He suggested AHS should have an alternate service to transport patients who are not in need of emergency help.
“I’ve said for years, you cannot, cannot be doing that.”
Sandbeck said AHS has had non-ambulance transport vehicles in place for the past four years. These are staff vehicles equipped with some medical supplies that can be used to shuttle patients between hospitals.
“We know that, at times across this province, patients that don’t require ambulances are moved by ambulance,” Sandbeck said, adding that the organization is currently looking at other options for transporting patients.