Alberta expands list of locations for patient drop-offs amid ambulance strain

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Rural paramedics now have more locations to transport non-critical patients, a move the Alberta government says will cut back on time spent waiting in hospital emergency departments.

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While ambulance crews in Calgary and Edmonton already take patients in some non-life-threatening situations to places like hospices or community health care centres, across the province they’ll be able to transport patients to 10 more alternative locations by the end of 2021.

Darren Sandbeck, chief paramedic and senior provincial director of Emergency Medical Services at Alberta Health Services (AHS), said at an announcement Tuesday the move will speed up care for patients and reduce the strain on the system.

“This plan allows us to expand on a program that we know first-hand is working,” said Sandbeck, adding it can reduce out-of-pocket costs for some patients.

The announcement comes as paramedics in Edmonton and around the province are under pressure with a spike in all types of emergency calls. While EMS averages about 1,000 calls per day, between July 28 and Sunday, the province averaged 1,700 calls per day. The recent heat wave was a factor, as EMS in Edmonton responded to 283 heat-related calls during that period.

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Sandbeck said EMS is offering overtime, evaluating its pool of casual staff and bringing in additional staff on board to handle the high number of calls.

“Our staff, like the entire healthcare system, has been under immense pressure over the last 16 months,” he said, adding EMS is also delaying some non-urgent patient transfers between hospitals to deal with demand.

“What that strategy allows us to do is actually just delay that transfer to move that patient at a later time when the system is not so busy,” he said.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said at the announcement the added locations for non-urgent patients will mean more ambulances can get back on the road faster.

“We’ve had recurring problems with paramedics lining up in emergency departments, waiting to transfer care of their patients, and it’s not the right use of their skills as paramedics and it’s not the best care for the patient,” said Shandro.

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Locations already receiving non-urgent patients include St. Joseph’s Home Carmel Hospice in Medicine Hat, St. Michael’s Health Centre in Lethbridge, and locations in Bashaw, Sylvan Lake, La Crete and Rainbow Lake.

Four other locations in Magrath, Picture Butte, Calgary and Slave Lake will be added to the list by the end of the year.

Taking patients by ambulance to many alternative healthcare facilities was not previously allowed under government-sponsored benefit programs.

Shandro said changes to an agreement with insurer Blue Cross allowed for different facilities to access more coverage.

While the government doesn’t have specific estimates on how much paramedic time will be saved by the move, the health authority will continue to monitor the “offload” time, or the time spent dropping patients off at hospitals.

It estimated that from 2017 to 2019, ground ambulances responded to approximately 90,000 non-urgent events where directing patients to alternative care sites could have been considered.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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