Ambulance shortage impacting more than just Sask.

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Whether you’re choking, bleeding out, or mid-birth, you might have to just hold it. AzamKamolov via Pixabay, manipulated by Lee Lim

With wait times increasing, there’s uncertainty as to the dependability of aid in crisis

Provinces across the country are facing mass shortages of paramedics and available ambulances. Why is this the case? In a recent news piece in The National, viewers were taken behind the scenes into Ottawa’s call centre for ambulances. Viewers were informed that Canada’s capital is consistently at a “level zero,” which means that there are no available ambulances left to respond to 911 calls.

Ottawa is just one example where the paramedic shortage is having a major impact. Many experts in the field have pointed to overwhelmed systems, exasperated since the start of the pandemic. Overwhelmed hospitals have also required paramedics and ambulances to wait at the hospital for hours due to the lack of available beds.

This impacts wait times, as paramedics have to wait hours at the hospital transferring their patients instead of being available for 911 to take a call. The impacts of chronic understaffing have also impacted the exchange paramedics have at the hospital when transferring their patients. Short term solutions for understaffing seem bleak, as the root cause for the emergency response crisis is the lack of trained professionals in positions of influence and importance within the healthcare system.

Paramedic burnout since the start of the pandemic has also increased, leaving staffing shortages. Many paramedics are finding it difficult to sit and wait at hospitals when they could be in the community responding to calls for help. British Columbia is also seeing an impact due to staffing shortages, as the province’s recent switch to paying paramedics less has had a great impact on paramedics within the province.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health have acknowledged the concerns surrounding ambulance shortages and understaffing. In an emailed response to CBC, the SHA expressed that both the SHA and Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health are aware that there are times where call volume will exceed the anticipated and planned-for staffing levels. SHA explains that “during these situations, the SHA will assess the situation and call in additional EMS resources and triage calls to ensure ambulances are dispatched to patients requiring urgent care.”

Everett Hindley, Minister of Rural and Remote Health, explained that the province is taking steps to incentivize healthcare workers, which include paramedics to work in rural communities within Saskatchewan. Minister Hindley went on to say that “we do have a target within the ministry in rural areas to try to have response times of 30 minutes or less to an EMS call. I think our most recent statistics from a year or two ago have [us] achieving that about 73 per cent of the time.”

Saskatchewan’s NDP have called for more action regarding the emergency response crisis. The NDP wants to see a robust and immediate plan to address the shortage and wait times that the province is currently subjected to. Vicki Mowat, NDP MLA in Saskatoon’s Fairview riding, said[AD1]  regarding the shortage that “we’ve been hearing EMS report this concern for so long due to offload delays. So, not being able to move patients into the emergency room when our emergency rooms are full, transferring patients between communities and between facilities. […] We have a patchwork system that is not working. It is representing the crisis that we know exists in healthcare right now, where we do not have adequate access to emergency care, we do not have adequate access to primary care. It is a symptom of a whole system that is in crisis and it’s absolutely unacceptable. I think that we expect that when we call 911, we are going to have an ambulance available.”

What is the provincial government doing in order to minimize wait times and address staffing shortages? The SHA says that the last two budgets have seen an increase by the provincial government, with an additional $5.64 million in funding to help with more staffing and to minimize response times in Regina, Saskatoon, and other communities. This includes $3.5 million to Saskatoon for three additional 27/4 staffed ambulances, and $2.14 million to Regina for two additional 27/4 staffed ambulances.

In a statement to CBC, the SHA stated that “The Ministry of Health and the SHA are working on a multi-year EMS stabilization plan to address staffing issues in a number of rural communities across the province.” The province’s current 2022-23 budget includes $7.317 million to provide additional support to full time workers in 27 communities throughout the province.

Is the province doing enough to mitigate wait times and to increase the number of qualified staff? Unlike certain types of professions, the healthcare system requires individuals with years of qualified training, which naturally takes time to accomplish. Therefore, increasing the number of qualified staff to fill up staffing shortages will take time, and is not a fool-proof short-term solution to the ongoing crisis. Provinces such as British Columbia are turning to internationally trained nurses in hopes of filling shortages. It appears that Canada’s emergency response crisis will only become mitigated if individuals from the international community are willing to come to Canada to practice medicine.

This begs the question: does Canada need to re-invest and provide more opportunities for individuals to be accepted into nursing and medical schools? Would it be more beneficial for the province of Saskatchewan to invest in programs focused on nursing and medicine? There are many important questions that need to be asked when finding a solution to the ongoing crisis, which likely stems from underlining staffing shortages and therefore impacts wait times for ambulances. Will this ongoing crisis across the country become a long-term issue going forward, or will provinces be able to find a rapid and reliable solution?

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