Paramedics Speak Out and Demand Solutions
May 22-28 is Paramedic Services Week. Ontario paramedics who respond to 911 calls and transport patients to hospitals are speaking out about the crisis in the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) sector. A major problem they and patients face is the long time it takes to hand patients in their care over to staff at hospital Emergency Departments which are already overburdened and short-staffed. Until patients are handed over, ambulance paramedics are not available to answer other 911 calls.
In response to a 2021 survey by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 41 per cent of paramedics said they experienced Code Blacks (no ambulance available to respond to 911 calls) daily, with another 24 per cent reporting Code Blacks a few times a week. With call volumes increasing, 83 per cent reported that their workload is harming their physical and/or mental health and 91 per cent said there are not enough staff to keep up with demand, creating a vicious cycle of overtime, missed work breaks and burnout. This has made recruitment and retention of paramedics difficult.
Earlier in May paramedics in Windsor-Essex experienced two Code Blacks in one week. On one of those nights, Chatham-Kent EMS also experienced a Code Black, leaving both with less back-up support in case of a big emergency. The president of CUPE 2974 which represents EMS paramedics and dispatchers in Windsor-Essex described it as playing Russian roulette, since no one knows when or where the next major critical event is going to occur.
The crisis is a direct result of provincial government cuts to hospital capacity over the past three decades, the paramedics say. Ontario has the fewest hospital beds per capita in Canada. In 1990 there were 4.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people; in 2021 there were only 2.2 beds per 1,000 people. Hospitals are discharging patients “quicker and sicker,” but the problem of overcrowding remains. Despite the pandemic exposing the consequences of decades of cuts, privatization and repeated reorganization of the health care system in Ontario, the government still refuses to make the necessary investments to rectify the situation. Beyond increased funding to hire more staff and to expand services to meet the needs of the population, paramedics are calling for government to invest in community health to reduce the demand for emergency medical care, including through mental health and addictions support, family doctors and affordable housing. For more information and to sign a petition to the government click here.
(with files from Ontario Political Forum and CBC)