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Ontario ombudsman calls for overhaul of ‘wholly inadequate’ paramedic services oversight system

Click to play video: 'The delicate task of transferring ICU patients to other hospitals' The delicate task of transferring ICU patients to other hospitals
WATCH ABOVE: Ontario health care workers are facing new challenges during the pandemic. As intensive care units fill up, COVID-19 patients are being transferred to other hospitals. As Jeff Semple explains, Ornge, a non-profit with years of experience shuttling patients, is the busiest it's ever been – Apr 23, 2021

Ontario’s ombudsman is calling on the provincial government to revamp the oversight system for paramedic services, saying it’s “complicated, overburdened, and wholly inadequate.”

“Emergency ambulance service can mean the difference between life and death, and we see this now more than ever as our medical services struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Paul Dubé said in a statement issued Thursday morning.

“It is the ministry that has primary responsibility for ensuring that the emergency health care patients receive is consistent with the law and service standards. It has neglected patient safety by failing to adequately monitor EMS providers, dispatch centres, and Ornge (air ambulance).”

Read more: Ornge air ambulance working around the clock to transfer critical COVID-19 patients across Ontario

In a report called Oversight 911, Dubé and his office reported finding “several serious concerns” as part of their investigation, which was started after probing 72 complaints from a whistleblower, patients, and the families of patients. However, the report didn’t examine care-related issues but rather issues with reporting complaints to government staff.

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Among the team’s findings were “serious issues” surrounding the conduct of paramedics, medication errors and other problems not being investigated because government staff viewed those as “outside of [their] purview,” a lack of policy for how investigations should be done, an understaffing of investigative staff, a lack of information on how to file complaints and instances of no follow-up for those who did file complaints, and no centralized tracking of complaints to identify systemic issues.

“With so many people being transported by ambulance due to the pandemic, the changes we are recommending are timely and valuable,” Dubé said.

Read more: Ornge air ambulance says service will continue despite labour issues with paramedics

As a result of the investigation, he made 53 recommendations to the Ontario government in response to the issues identified.

The main recommendations centred on calling for all complainants to be interviewed by ministry investigators, instituting a new customer service policy for following up with those who file complaints, creating a centralized case management system, broadening out the mandate for investigators and establishing clear ways to follow-up on issues flagged by investigators.

Dubé praised Ontario Ministry of Health staff for cooperating with the probe and for beginning to implement the recommendations, adding the ministry agreed with all 53 proposals.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the government has been working to modernize the investigation process.

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Read more: An in-depth look at how Toronto’s paramedics work to save victims of gun violence, trauma

“Our government will be sharing progress updates on the recommendations made in the report with the Ombudsman through the six-month report back requirement. This includes the additional recruitment of ministry investigation and oversight units, improving protocols and processes and ensuring the investigative process is transparent and accountable,” she said in a statement.

“We will continue to work with our partners across the province on implementing a plan that is responsive to this report and make sure investigations take appropriate measures to ensure concerns are addressed.”

In Ontario, approximately a million people are transported by 8,000 paramedics with 61 different services each year at a cost of $1.5 billion.

Do you have any information about the issues identified by Ontario’s ombudsman? Contact Nick Westoll at nick.westoll@globalnews.ca.

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