The issues facing Alberta’s Emergency Medical Service in the province have spanned decades and have been presided over by several political parties in office since the 2009 province-wide takeover by Alberta Health Services. The question today is whether there are realistic short-term solutions that can be followed up by long-term policy changes.
According to Michael Parker, the President of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, a trade union that represents paramedical technical, professional and general support employees, there are some positives that have resulted from the province’s recent 10-point plan and the Metro Response Plan.
“The protection of rural communities by getting our units back out into the communities that are a step in the right direction. Having an integrated operation center that can control and has the ability to manage patient flow within the province; that’s a step in the right direction. They're starting up the Calgary system, that's a positive direction.”
In an email, to Discover Airdrie a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services wrote, “EMS has seen significant short-term success by implementing the Metro Response Plan, which is designed to assist in keeping ambulances close to their home base. EMS has reported a 43 per cent reduction in Airdrie ambulances coming into the City of Calgary and the early data shows this downward trend is continuing.”
However, Parker acknowledged that short-term success is already waning.
“My latest indication for members on the street and as of [Thursday, May 12], is that units are being drawn in from Kananaskis into Calgary again, so the fence that was put up around Calgary to keep rural units out in the communities where they're supposed to be like in Airdrie are being drawn back in again.”
In his view, the short-term solutions that were put in place several weeks ago are missing the human resource component and that component can be part of the short-term solution.
“We can talk about moving the 40 percent casual workforce who is already working full-time hours into a full-time position. We can also increase our wraparound services on our harm reduction sites that were actually taking down the pressure on the opioid overdose.”
According to provincial government statistics, in the last quarter of 2021, there were 1,297 emergency department visits in the Calgary zone due to substance use; however, this number does not necessarily reflect that EMS was involved in every single ER visit. That number is the highest it has been since 2016 when statistics started being recorded. There were 457 hospitalizations due to substance use during that same time period.
In a previous statement to Discover Airdrie with regards to staffing, Steve Buick, Press Secretary to the Minister of Health, wrote that “AHS has added 230 paramedics in the past two years, and with a bigger budget they’ll be able to keep hiring more staff. There will still be missed shifts and other issues because of the strain of the past two years, but overall, more ambulances and more paramedics will mean shorter response times in Airdrie and an EMS system that works better for people across the Calgary Zone.”
When asked where HSAA gets its information and statistics from, Parker divulged that all the facts and figures that are published both on social media and on its website are coming directly from paramedics.
“This is direct from the eyes of the paramedics on the street today and those paramedics are feeding me information and I'm so grateful for their work, because, without these tools, I would have nothing to stand on,” he said. “What I have is identifiable 300 vacant shifts every week in this province. What I have is response times from rural communities to the opposite side of the city of Calgary for critical incidences.”
He acknowledged that while the crisis in EMS has been a long time coming, there was already worry even before the provincial take-over.
“[Back then] our system was not in trouble, but it was getting to a point where we were not meeting our response times and so what they started doing was instead of setting a response time of eight minutes, 59 seconds, they increased the response time to 12 minutes.”
Parker made it clear he does favour a province-wide system because of the very dynamic and fluctuating nature of emergency services and that the very goal of a province-wide system has worked in the past.
“Having units able to interact and communicate with each other in times of need is how we were able to resolve the tragic events of the tornado in 1987 in Edmonton. We brought in allied services from all over the place. That's mutual aid, that's how the system should work.”
For him, the crux of the matter comes down to people and how they are being utilized and though he touched on paramedics waiting in hospitals for long periods of time, he said that this particular issue is not a paramedic-specific problem, it’s a system-wide problem.
“Yes, our paramedics will start their shift in the hallway of the Rockyview General Hospital and end that shift still standing here. I would just suggest that they aren't babysitting; they're providing paramedic specialized care to these people,” Parker said. “If you've got a broken hip, you can't use the bathroom. And there is no issue with furniture in the healthcare system. If they need more beds, they can go buy them tomorrow. We just don't have the people.”
On Friday, May 13th, the provincial government that Alberta Health Services has opened and staffed 19 of 50 permanent intensive care unit (ICU) beds supported by $100 million this year from Budget 2022. The remaining 31 beds are expected to open by the end of September.
“Keep in mind what happens to the canary in the coal mine at the end of the story,” Parker said, alluding to the fact that paramedics in the hallways of Alberta’s hospitals are like canaries and their fates may be similar of things don't change.
It should be noted that since AHS has taken over EMS, there have been several premiers who have presided over Alberta’s healthcare system and budget from almost all political parties, including the Conservative government led by former Premier Stelmach, the Liberal government led by Ms. Redford, and the NDP led by Ms. Notley.
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