Edmonton Journal

Alberta's paramedics need way more support

Psychologi­cal injuries lead to high rate of absenteeis­m and poor retention

- DR. LUANNE METZ Dr. Luanne Metz is the MLA for Calgary-Varsity and the official Opposition Critic for Health (Emergency and Surgical Care). Prior to being elected, Metz was a professor at the University of Calgary.

When many of us have a bad day at work, a meeting may run long. Perhaps a colleague behaves badly or some crucial equipment fails.

When a paramedic in Alberta has a bad day, they may be at a car accident trying to save someone's life as another lies nearby, deceased, from a gruesome injury. When this happens, as it has, the EMS profession­als have to move on to their next call. And it happens again and again.

Consider a paramedic on scene dealing with the death of a baby, obviously a horrifying event. This person was not debriefed in any way or monitored for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rather, they were given access to an addictions counsellor, not someone trained to help them with a potential debilitati­ng and lifelong psychologi­cal injury.

Over the last four years, more than 1,300 of Alberta's 5,600 paramedics have suffered a psychologi­cal injury. These injuries account for one of every four workplace absences among paramedics. And, on average, 20 per cent of paramedics are on sick leave at any time. That's more than four times the average of other AHS staff. Paramedics are missing more time due to psychologi­cal injury than all other causes combined for all other AHS staff. That lost time has very real implicatio­ns for paramedics, but also for anyone calling 911 in Alberta.

Since 2023 mediation between AHS and the Health Sciences Associatio­n of Alberta, paramedics have been eligible for reimbursem­ent of up to $3,000 a year for counsellin­g. However, they're given a list of therapists and must find one to help. At the rate of $220 per hour, as suggested by the Psychologi­cal Associatio­n of Alberta, this will not provide a lot of counsellin­g. One EMS profession­al found himself talking with an AHS-provided counsellor who said she's “not allowed to handle first responder stuff” and referred him to an agency three hours away that wasn't eligible for reimbursem­ent.

EMS does not have access to an on-staff or contracted psychologi­st with special training or expertise in

PTSD. When the NDP was in government, ambulances were equipped with hydraulic stretchers to reduce physical injuries and Alberta paramedics were given two days of training about how to recognize signs of PTSD and how to deal with it.

The subsequent UCP government cancelled the program. Although a peer-support program is finally being developed, it is not enough. Profession­al supports are needed.

The average EMS career in Alberta is less than nine years. As Alberta's population grows by thousands of people every month, paramedics are leaving the profession or leaving the province. In the last two years, the vacancy rate in EMS positions has nearly doubled.

Those left behind are seeing a bigger workload, way more patients and higher exposure to traumatic events and illnesses.

This places even more demands on their minds and bodies. We need to pay attention to this. Retention is an opportunit­y to increase our workforce.

Over 18 months ago, the Government of Alberta published the Alberta EMS Provincial Advisory Committee report.

The need for more paramedics was clear. But it was also clear that we need to provide them with adequate mental health supports to retain those we already have. Several recommenda­tions were made to support our EMS workforce.

We need to see action on these recommenda­tions — including changes to shift scheduling and “working with system partners to enhance access to mental health supports.”

If we only focus on reducing response times, an important goal, we risk losing the chance to build a longterm sustainabl­e workforce.

There was nothing in the Alberta 2024-25 budget or strategic plan to retain paramedics by providing necessary profession­al mental health supports.

We need to take better care of our first responders.

Because, you see, we are only as safe as our EMS. These are the people we rely on if we're involved in an incident, big or small.

They want to help us. They want to be fit and mentally ready to take on whatever emergency they encounter.

But we need to help them, too. It is time for action.

Our EMS is calling 911.

Will we pick up?

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