Clogged hospitals slow ambulance response times in Saskatoon

“If we don’t have resources on the street to make ambulance calls or respond to 911 calls, it’s because there’s a system issue going on.”

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The head of the union representing paramedics in Saskatoon says response times to 911 are increasing due to staffing shortages at hospitals across the city.

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Paul Hills said long ER wait times mean paramedics often spend many hours waiting to turn over a patient, taking ambulances off the road and increasing response times when every second can count.

“What we are currently experiencing is nothing new. That’s just the magnitude of the seriousness of the situation,” he said.

Paul Hills, president of the Saskatoon Paramedic Association, says the number of calls has reached unprecedented levels.
Paul Hills, president of the Saskatoon Paramedic Association, says the number of calls has reached unprecedented levels. Photo by Michelle Berg /Star Phoenix of Saskatoon

The delays are the latest symptom of what some unions have called a health human resources crisis at Saskatchewan hospitals.

Patients in Saskatoon and Regina reported grueling waits in emergency departments. Some rural emergencies have closed entirely for lack of workers.

Health Minister Paul Merriman has acknowledged that the problem in Saskatoon is not a shortage of paramedics, but long waits in emergency rooms to transfer patient care to a doctor or nurse.

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“They told me they felt there were enough ambulances on the road to meet the needs as long as they weren’t stuck in the emergency room waiting for unloading delays,” Merriman said.

Service provider Medavie Health Services West contacted him about the problem in June, and they decided to restart a “treat and release” program, where Saskatoon paramedics can call a doctor to the scene. a call and get advice on whether the patient should be taken to hospital or not, Merriman said. His hope is that it helps ease pressures on emergency rooms.

Health Minister Paul Merriman speaks to reporters on March 8, 2022.
Health Minister Paul Merriman speaks to reporters on March 8, 2022. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Chief’s Post

“I think the system as a whole is under increased pressure right now, and that’s impacting ground EMS,” said Steven Skoworodko, chair of the Saskatchewan Chiefs of Paramedic Services.

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A spring survey within the association found that member ambulance services responded to 26,000 more calls in the first three months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021, which equates to around 2 million extra miles of travel, he said.

“We have certainly seen delays in response times and long offload times, primarily in Saskatoon, but we have also seen an incredible increase in pressure due to the volume of calls occurring across the province.”

He attributes the increase in calls to the COVID-19 pandemic; he thinks some people may have ignored or failed to seek help for common health issues that later became more serious. The rapidly aging population has also steadily contributed to call volumes, he said.

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The Saskatchewan Health Authority was unable to provide specific data on the increase in wait times in Saskatoon. A spokesperson for Medavie said he could not answer questions about it until press time.

Hill said the challenges facing EMS services are ultimately the product of deeper challenges in the healthcare system that are beyond their ability to control.

“If we don’t have resources on the street to make ambulance calls or respond to 911 calls, it’s because there’s a system problem,” he said.

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