Ambulance troubles plague province
Closed emergency room departments contribute to the situation
At 6:15 a.m on Friday, Jan. 4, for all of northern Nova Scotia there was only one ambulance available in Truro and one available in New Glasgow.
At one point on Wednesday, Jan. 3, there were no available ambulances to respond in Halifax Regional Municipality.
However, there were at least 19 tied up waiting to offload patients at three area hospitals.
The union representing this province’s paramedics has been using social media to tweet out the lack of availability of ambulances in real time as part of its Code Critical campaign.
“The government hasn’t admitted that we’re in crisis,” said Michael Nickerson, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727. “We’re saying that there is.”
It’s not a shortage of paramedics, he argues, it’s the product of an overwhelmed health care system.
The contributing factors to ambulances waiting with patients at emergency rooms are many.
There were just over 12,000 emergency room closures across the province in 2018, more than double the number in 2017. Most of those were due to physician unavailability.
In this region the hospitals in Shelburne and Digby see frequent closures of the emergency departments. When smaller emergency rooms are closed, ambulances often take patients to regional hospitals. Those emergency rooms get busier and ambulances have to travel farther, putting them out of service longer.
“We have a fifth of the beds in hospitals tied up by people who should be in nursing homes,” NDP Leader Gary Burrill said last week. “There’s a lack of new nursing home spaces, which is another contributing factor … Emergency rooms are the canaries in the coal mines of the whole health care system. What we are looking at is a systematic crisis.”
On Dec. 30 the union tweeted out that there were zero units available in Cape Breton Regional Municipality for a period of time.
Jeff Fraser, director of provincial operations for Emergency Health Services, doesn’t deny there are broader systematic issues. He also cautions that while there are shortages of availability, they are brief.
“It is a system that is designed to expand and contract,” said Fraser. “So as soon as availability goes
down, we have a plan to ramp it back up.”
Beyond systematic issues, like closed emergency rooms, and paramedics waiting with patients at emergency rooms to be admitted, Fraser noted they’d also had a particularly busy holiday season.
“On Dec. 29 alone we had an unprecedented day – we saw 690 calls,” said Fraser. “That would be roughly 20 per cent busier than a
typical day for us.”
He added that they have been working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to find efficiencies.
“Our staff work hard every day to deliver the service required sometimes in adverse circumstances, but they get the job done,” said Fraser.
“This issue is not just isolated to Nova Scotia. It’s across Canada.”