People who call for an ambulance in Ontario may have to wait longer for one to arrive as health-care staffing shortages and recent temporary emergency room closures slow down emergency services’ response, a paramedics’ group said Friday.
Ambulance offload delays — when paramedics wait in an emergency department for a patient to be transferred to the care of a hospital — are tying up paramedics for longer and longer, preventing them from responding to calls during that time, said Michael Sanderson of the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs.
“Not only does it slow the response to emergency calls, in other words, the life-threatening calls, the heart attacks, strokes, major trauma,” it also means there are fewer ambulances available to respond to calls for broken bones and other less critical conditions, said Sanderson, who co-chairs the association’s working group on offload delays.
Stretches of time when there are no ambulances available to respond to calls — known as “code zero” events — are also growing more frequent, he said.
Sanderson, who is chief of the Hamilton Paramedic Service, said the city has seen 196 so-called “code zero” events so far this year, more than double the tally for all of last year. “And it’s probably headed towards the worst year that we’ve had,” he added.
Darryl Wilton, president of the Ontario Paramedic Association, said in a recent interview that offload delays have gotten 12 times longer in the last year alone.
Wilton said the delays have reached a level he has never seen before in his 25 years on the job.
Offload delays of one to two hours were previously considered extreme, but now some patients and paramedics are waiting 10 to 15 hours, he said.
‘Beds and staff’ needed to resolve issue
“A patient could be picked up this afternoon and not be offloaded until sometime tomorrow morning, and that’s not unusual anymore,” he said. That means multiple paramedic crews may be caring for the same patient over several shifts, he added.
The worsening delays are “having a massive impact on paramedic availability,” and the effects ripple out through neighbouring communities, Wilton said.
“This is something that, plain and simple, requires beds and staff to fix the problem,” he said.
Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said in a statement Friday that the province has added more than 10,500 health-care workers to the system since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Like many other jurisdictions around the world, Ontario’s health system faces pressures due to the challenge of maintaining the required staffing levels,” she said.
“We have been working proactively with all partners, including Ontario Health and the 140 hospital corporations, the regulatory colleges, and health sector unions, to address these staffing pressures. This includes identifying solutions for both the short and long term.”