The Alberta government has struck an advisory committee to address challenges facing Alberta’s emergency medical services system.
Grande Prairie MLA Tracy Allard and Highwood MLA RJ Sigurdson will co-chair the committee, which will also include unions representing paramedics, ambulance operators, municipal representatives and members from Indigenous communities.
That committee will have until May to come up with advice for the health minister on how to improve the beleaguered EMS system.
Citing an incident in Airdrie that saw a 10-year-old boy with a broken leg transported to hospital by a fire crew because no EMS crews were available, Health Minister Jason Copping announced some initiatives to improve what people in EMS have been raising red flags over for months.
“We don’t ever want to be in a position where we put other emergency services at risk to fill the gaps in our urgent medical care,” Copping said.
Copping hailed the work done by EMS throughout the pandemic, adding the base budget for EMS got a $30-million bump this year.
“And they’ve added more than 200 paramedics and EMTs, an increase of nine per cent,” he said. “But the situation last week (in Airdrie) shows that there are limits on what they can do.”
Allard called the committee “an opportunity borne out of necessity and a chance to lead the way with innovative ideas.”
“We are committed to listen, to learn and to work together for great improvement for all Albertans,” the Grande Prairie MLA said.
AHS chief paramedic Darren Sandbeck also outlined a 10-point plan to help relieve pressures on the EMS system, with about half of the efforts already being underway.
Those points include:
- Hiring more paramedics
- Launching pilots to manage non-emergency inter-facility transfers
- Initiating an ‘hours of work’ project to help manage staff fatigue
- Transferring low priority calls to other agencies, in consultation with EMS physicians
- Stopping the automatic dispatch of ambulances to vehicle collisions without injuries
- Creating a new integrated operations centre in Calgary with paramedic and hospital staff to improve flow of patients and resources
- Evaluation by an emergency communications officer to determine if it’s appropriate for an ambulance to respond from outside the area
- Implementing a pilot project in Red Deer to manage patient transfers between facilities without using ambulances
- Allowing ambulances to be pre-empted instead of being automatically dispatched when a 911 call is received, to free up more ambulances for critical patients
- Developing a strategic provincial service plan for EMS delivery in the province
“These are intended to be permanent changes,” Sandbeck said.
He pointed to the plethora of motor vehicle collisions following weather events like freezing rain that would normally require AHS EMS crews to check on the well-being of people involved.
“As of early December, we stopped doing that,” the chief paramedic said. “So I think you can appreciate what that does to free up resources for the rest of the system, when our emergency communication officers (at 911 call centres) are confirming that there’s no injuries on the scene and that there is no need for EMS to respond.”
The president of a union that represents 28,000 Alberta health-care professionals, including paramedics, was “cautiously optimistic” about the announced intentions to hire more paramedics and improve training programs within the province, an indication the government is acting on EMS workers’ concerns.
But he warned some of the measures, like non-ambulance patient transfers, could be taking Alberta down a path towards privatization.
“When I see things like alternate sources of transport, these all lead to a conversation of eroding our public health-care system,” said Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.
“When you start putting all these pieces in, all you’re doing is competing against ourselves for the limited resources of paramedics that are available out there.”
Parker said EMS systems across Canada are all looking for qualified personnel.
“So if you’re going to compete against each other by opening up alternate privatization markets, all it does is erode the core of our health-care system. Every dollar spent on health care needs to go to direct patient care, not to profits.”
The measures come after alarms were raised for weeks about long stretches of red alerts affecting major populations in the province, and the continued burnout of paramedics and others in the EMS system.
A red alert or “code red” refers to times when there aren’t any ambulances available to respond to calls.
In mid-January, AHS said EMS was experiencing a 30 per cent increase in calls in the past few months, with COVID-19 and opioid patients driving that demand.
According to data acquired by the Alberta NDP from AHS, Calgary and Edmonton saw an average of 17 red alerts per day between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30, 2021, for a total of 2,085 times.
“Albertans need to know that when they are in distress and call 911 that an ambulance will reach them as quickly as possible,” Edmonton-Centre MLA David Shepherd said in a statement. “The fact that an ambulance wasn’t available almost every hour of the day in our province’s two major cities is severely alarming.”
The Opposition called for public reporting of red alerts on Monday, something the health minister said he would be looking to the committee for advice on.
“Will we look at providing more public data? Likely, yes,” Copping said. “That work is underway, and I’m looking forward for the committee to report back.”
The advisory committee begins meeting this week, Parker said, but with four months to come up with recommendations to a decades-long problem, the HSAA president expects all members to come to the table ready to have “hard conversations.”
“This issue didn’t occur last week, and it’s going to take a lot more than a couple of committee meetings to actually have the courage to walk forward and fix the issues that are ongoing here.”
Copping also announced Monday the province will be issuing a request for proposals to review the provincewide EMS dispatch system.
“We believe that an outside group of experienced health system experts will be able to identify further opportunities to address ongoing pressures and improve effectiveness and efficiencies in how the dispatch system works,” he said.
EMS dispatch in Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer and the R.M. of Wood Buffalo were folded into the provincial dispatch system last year. After much objection from those municipal governments, EMS dispatch systems were switched over to the province starting in early 2021.
–with files from Michael King, Carolyn Kury de Castillo and Breanna Karstens-Smith, Global News