Ontario paramedics’ groups say health-care staffing shortages and recent temporary emergency room closures are exacerbating delays in getting patients into hospitals — and ambulances back in the community.
Darryl Wilton, president of the Ontario Paramedic Association, says ambulance offload delays — when paramedics wait in an emergency department for a patient to be transferred to the care of a hospital — have gotten 12 times longer in the last year alone.
He says offload delays of one to two hours were previously considered extreme, but now it’s “not unusual” for patients and paramedics to wait 10 to 15 hours.
Wilton says delays are “having a massive impact on paramedic availability,” and the effects ripple out through neighbouring communities.
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Neal Roberts, member and past president of the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs, says staffing shortages across the health-care sector, combined with the recent temporary hospital closures and a slight uptick in calls for paramedic care have created “almost like a perfect storm and a bit of a domino (effect).”
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Roberts, chief of the Middlesex-London Paramedic Service, says the closures also force paramedics to take patients to hospitals further away, which takes more time and reduces service in their community.
Some hospitals — including Lakeridge Health’s Bowmanville hospital and the Seaforth Community Hospital in Huron County — have announced closures or reduced hours ahead of the long weekend.
Several Ontario hospitals have previously warned that emergency department closures could be a recurring issue this summer as a result of staffing shortages. Rural areas have been particularly affected, with communities such as Perth, Clinton and Wingham seeing their ERs close for stretches as long as several days.
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Offloading delays predate the COVID-19 pandemic but paramedics’ groups say the issue has gotten worse during the health crisis.
A spokesperson for the Minister of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this year, the Ontario government issued a memo to emergency services, telling them to consider having paramedic crews tend to more than one patient at a time in ERs — something known as “batching” patients — so that paramedics could return to service more quickly.
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