Alberta Health Services (AHS) is working to improve Emergency Medical Services (EMS) response times and ensure Albertans needing emergency care, get that care. Improvement will be driven by innovative new approaches to delivering care, the addition of new resources, better use of existing resources, as well as support for existing EMS staff while seeking new workers to augment our team.
EMS will be adding new ambulances to the streets again in 2023. 20 new ambulances are budgeted, 10 for Calgary and 10 for Edmonton. To staff these new ambulances, EMS will be hiring a total of 80 new paramedics. AHS is deploying these new ambulances to Calgary and Edmonton because these are the two areas of largest use and need. Adding ambulances here means less need to move ambulances from suburbs and rural areas, into the cities.
EMS also continues to have ongoing meetings with learning institutions regarding hiring of new graduates and potentially expanding future training capacity. A public paramedic recruitment initiative has also been launched in Australia, which currently has more qualified graduates than available jobs.
On January 5, 2023, a new policy was implemented which provides a consistent, provincial approach to transfer of patient care from Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to Emergency Department (ED) teams for lower acuity patients. This new provincial policy will allow paramedics to return to service in the community faster, by allowing them to move patients who do not need observation to appropriate hospital waiting areas instead of automatically waiting with paramedics to be seen. While waiting, patients will be cared for by the ED/Urgent Care Centre (UCC) team, and a decision to assign a patient to the external waiting room will be based on patient stability and care needs.
Beginning in January 2023, EMS dispatch will have the option of connecting 911 calls confirmed as non-urgent directly to Health Link, for medical guidance and support. Known as Secondary Triage, this plan provides additional support for 911 EMS callers who do not need an ambulance and who may not have other ways to access medical help and advice. Albertans are likely to benefit from the freeing up of more than 40,000 calls each year, so that ambulances are available to respond to true emergency calls.
In 2023, EMS will enact new guidelines which will allow paramedics to assess and treat a patient, potentially without requiring transport to hospital. Patients will be provided options for alternative care as well as referrals, if they do not need transport to a hospital or Urgent Care Centre.
This supports our emergency and acute care teams in suggesting non-ambulance alternative transport options to move patients who are medically stable, and ready to return home or to another care environments. This was announced in December 2022 and is now being implemented for 2023.
AHS EMS is accepting the recommendations of the Minister’s Advisory Council. More information on these recommendations can be found here.
Two pilot projects are underway which aim to keep ambulances for emergency use primarily. In Red Deer and area, a pilot project will switch patients needing a transfer, who are stable, to dedicated IFT vehicles, allowing ambulances to be kept for life threatening emergencies.
One Spruce Grove Fire Department’s pilot project allows for the department’s paramedics to cancel an incoming ambulance when they determine one is not needed, and another pilot project allows for firefighter-paramedics to transport themselves if that option is better for the patient. If these prove successful by increasing capacity while ensuring patients receive quality care, they may be expanded. The pilot projects will conclude March 31, 2023 and an evaluation will assess the effectiveness of these initiatives.
In 2022, 19 new ambulances were added. All new ambulances are in service and Advanced Care Paramedics (ACP) and Primary Care Paramedics (PCP) have already been hired to staff them.
From January 2022 to December 31, 2022, EMS hired 457 new staff members including 341 paramedics. Looking over the longer term, there has been an 11.2 per cent increase in paramedics employed by AHS between December 2019 and December 2022.
Additionally, in 2022, EMS recruitment and hiring was consolidated into a single, provincial program that is ensuring greater consistency in hiring practices across all zones. Previously each zone was responsible for hiring and recruitment. This change has allowed for more streamlined hiring processes, elimination of duplication and a decrease in onboarding time.
Beginning in 2022, EMS no longer automatically dispatches an ambulance to collisions. This practice avoids unnecessary use of ambulances and becomes most apparent and effective during severe weather events where fender-benders are common. From January 2022 to November 2022, 83 unnecessary automatic ambulance responses have been prevented.
The Metro Response Plan (MRP) began in March 2022 and is an ongoing strategy that helps keep suburban ambulances in the communities where they are based. It allows dispatchers to return ambulance crews to their home communities, instead of being tasked with other emergency responses outside these areas.
For example, before this change, ambulances from communities including Airdrie and Cochrane may have been brought into the City of Calgary about 400 times per week. After implementing this plan, as of October 2022 (the most recently available data), that number has dropped to about 130. In Edmonton prior to the response plan changes, there were about 400 suburban responses into Edmonton, and following implementation there were about 290.
The EMS Pre-empt and Divert initiative allows dispatchers to override computer-automated assignments for ambulances and is used to switch (or pre-empt) an ambulance from a lower priority assignment and divert it to a higher priority call when needed. This is continuing to assist in reducing response times to patients with life threatening conditions.
EMS shifts and work pattens can be long and stressful on staff. Over the past two years, EMS has reassessed historical shift lengths and days on/days off patterns to create more sustainable and ‘normal’ working shifts. Having more balanced shifts and workweeks helps to alleviate staff fatigue and contributes to the retention of staff. In some cases, shifts are adjusted to provide more staff capacity.
Following feedback from frontline paramedics, an End of Shift strategy was also implemented, to minimize paramedics being kept on overtime past the end of their shifts. Previously if paramedics were already caring for a patient and their shift ended, overtime was automatic. Under the new guidelines, several strategies are in place to avoid or minimize overtime.
Calgary and Edmonton’s IOCs opened in 2022. These facilities help put all the medical leaders from the two largest zones together into one place so they can better see and re-balance the needs of the system. The IOCs allow for ambulances to be directed to hospitals where wait times are shorter, for example, or to know when a hospital has multiple EMS crews waiting to transfer the care of their patients to admissions, so these patients can be grouped together, allowing paramedics to be freed up and returned to service.
The Draft EMS Provincial Service Plan is complete. This long-term plan coupled with yearly operational plans will guide EMS services now and into the future and is in alignment with the AEPAC recommendations.
When appropriate, EMS is already moving calls to the Poison and Drug Information Service (PADIS). From January to August 31, 2022, 464 calls met the criteria to be diverted to PADIS, meaning dozens of unnecessary ambulance responses were avoided.