Thousands of ambulance shifts in metro Edmonton have gone vacant in 2022, data released by the Opposition showed Tuesday.
In the first 10 months of 2022, 16,318 metro paramedic shifts went unstaffed, according to freedom of information requests. Add in interfacility transfer units and that number jumps to 18,777.
“Meanwhile, the government’s own EMS report is still sitting on Jason Copping’s desk, kept secret from the public more than a year after it was commissioned,” Edmonton-City Centre MLA David Shepherd said Tuesday.
“But it’s not a secret how to recruit and retain more paramedics; they’ve told us what they want.”
Shepherd reiterated calls from industry for getting paramedics off their shifts on time, making more part-time and casual paramedics into permanent, full-time positions, and scaling up harm reduction to reduce the burden from calls related to drug poisoning.
When plotted month by month, paramedic vacancies look like a sideways ‘S,’ with the low in February-March and the high in July to September.
From January to October, there have been an average of nearly 54 vacant paramedic shifts per day.
The Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) figures those vacancies represent a 15.5 per cent vacancy rate, or an additional 123.5 FTEs (full-time equivalents).
HSAA president Mike Parker said he’s been hearing about front-line shortages for years, shortages that lead to “code reds” when there are no ambulances available.
“We’ve been talking about it in the model of code reds every single day in this province, in all metro cities, all over the province. And this just reinforces what we’ve been talking about, because these thousands and thousands of unfilled shifts are the reason why we don’t have the trucks on the road to respond to 911 calls,” Parker told Global News.
“This running of perpetual code red is harming our people.”
Premier Danielle Smith said she is aware of paramedic burnout, a problem exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the great frustrations that I have heard from our paramedics is when they show up for a shift and then get called out of their home community and are never able to return back home,” Smith said at a press conference Tuesday.
“That’s one of the things we’re trying to resolve with the non-ambulance transfers.”
Smith also highlighted initiatives allowing paramedics to treat patients on the scene, diverting them from hospital, and improving the offload ratio, allowing paramedics to get back on the road sooner after transferring a patient to hospital.
In 2022, 457 new EMS staff — including 341 paramedics — were hired in the province, Alberta Health Services said.
That’s been part of the 11.2-per cent increase in paramedics since 2019.
“EMS is working hard to bolster paramedic numbers and has been having ongoing meetings with some learning institutions regarding hiring of new graduates and potentially expanding future training capacity,” an AHS spokesperson said in an email.
“AHS has also launched a public paramedic recruitment initiative with learning institutions in Australia, which currently has more qualified graduates than available jobs.”
The provincial health authority said median response times continue to be lower than or close to targets.
Edmonton’s response time targets are eight minutes at the median and 12 minutes in the 90th percentile.
The health minister’s office said that is the key measure of EMS performance.
“We increased the EMS budget by $64 million or 12 per cent this year,” Steve Buick, Minister Jason Copping’s press secretary, said in an email. “Those dollars are funding more ambulances and paramedics, especially in Edmonton and Calgary.
“The staff in EMS are strained; AHS needs to add more as fast as they can, and we’re supporting them in doing just that.”
Parker said Alberta is not a top “preferred employer” for paramedics nationwide, a sentiment carried by others in health care.
“This system is under strain. It’s not just paramedics, it is the entire health care system,” the HSAA president said.
“What we see here is a very critical pinch point where there are no paramedics responding to calls because, as the numbers show, 18,000-plus unfilled shifts in this city (Edmonton) alone.”
Shepherd said he’s heard some front-line paramedics “simply move on to other kinds of work.”
“Regardless of where they choose to go, the fact is that we are losing capacity in the system and that means that the folks that are working are having to take on more, they’re burning out faster and that leads to more attrition.”
The premier admitted turnover in the career is something that needs addressing.
“I’ve been told by front-line paramedics that we have a five-year turnover in that profession. And I think it’s because of some of those working conditions that so desperately need to be fixed,” Smith said.
— with files from Morgan Black, Global News
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