The Alberta government has announced changes to emergency medical services (EMS) aimed at getting people the care they need while getting ambulances back on the road faster.
EMS will now be able to take Albertans by ambulance to health-care facilities such as hospices or community health centres in urgent but non-life-threatening situations.
Up until now, this was not allowed under government-sponsored benefit programs. Previously, EMS ambulances were limited to transporting patients to emergency departments.
Paramedics who transport patients to emergency departments must continue to treat the person until their care is transferred to emergency department staff.
Between 2017 and 2019, the province said EMS ground ambulances responded to about 90,000 non-urgent incidents where transporting patients to alternative care sites could have been considered.
The province said allowing EMS to transport patients to these other care sites will get ambulances back on the road quicker, while reducing the strain on hospital emergency departments.
“We have seen far too many times ambulances lined up at emergency departments with non-critical patients waiting to receive care,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a news release Tuesday morning.
“Often, these patients don’t need emergency services and would be better served at other health-care facilities. Albertans requiring EMS should be taken to the most appropriate health-care facility — and ambulances should be back on the road as quickly as possible to reduce EMS wait times.”
By the end of the year, the province said 10 alternative health-care facilities will be set up to take patients across Alberta as part of Phase 1 of the initiative; six are already accepting patients. More locations will be added by 2023. (See the list of facilities below).
The province’s chief paramedic said expanding the types of health facilities that EMS ambulances can transport patients to enables better patient care.
“We can help ease the strain on patients and our emergency departments by allowing transport to alternate destinations for non-emergent or follow-up care,” Darren Sandbeck said.
The president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents more than 27,000 paramedical technical, professional and general support employees in the public and private sector, said this approach is “all wrong.”
“If the idea is to actually ease the burden on EMS crews in major cities, the approach is all wrong,” Mike Parker said in a news release.
“We need more crews and have needed them for a long time.”
Parker said hundreds of shifts in Edmonton and Calgary this month are not covered because there are not enough paramedics to fill them. He said he would like to see capacity issues and health-related leave addressed.
“This will not be fixed by playing shell games with patients — transporting patients from major cities to rural sites,” he said.
“This plan simply avoids the actual issues faced by EMS. This announcement will make no difference for Albertans requiring medical care. It’s long past time the systemic problem of understaffing was addressed so our dedicated professionals can be there for the sick and injured.”
Alberta has been experiencing extremely high demand for emergency services in Edmonton and Calgary in recent days.
Over the weekend, Alberta Health Services attributed the spike to heat-related calls, emergency calls related to people participating in outdoor activities and drug- and alcohol-related calls.
On July 1, EMS in Edmonton and Calgary each responded to 28 heat-related calls, according to Alberta Health Services. It was a significant increase from June 25, when AHS reported EMS responded to seven heat-related calls total in the two cities.
According to the AHS website, the busiest wait times for emergency departments in the province on Sunday morning included more than three hours at both the Misericordia Community Hospital and Northeast Community Heath Centre in Edmonton and Sheldon M. Chumir Centre in Calgary. There was a nearly six-hour wait at the WestView Health Centre in Stony Plain at 10 a.m.
Additional staff and ambulances were brought in to help meet the demand, on top of delaying some non-urgent transfers, according to AHS.
Phase 1 facilities already receiving patients being transported by ambulance:
- St. Joseph’s Home Carmel Hospice (Medicine Hat)
- St. Michael’s Health Centre (Lethbridge)
- Bashaw Care Centre (Bashaw)
- Sylvan Lake Community Health Centre (Sylvan Lake)
- La Crete Health Centre (La Crete)
- Rainbow Lake Health Centre (Rainbow Lake)
Additional Phase 1 facilities to be included by Dec. 31:
- Magrath Health Centre (Magrath)
- Piyami Health Centre (Picture Butte)
- East Calgary Health Centre (Calgary)
- Slave Lake Family Care Clinic (Slave Lake)
With files from Morgan Black, Global News.