Alberta Health to divert non-urgent 911 calls to 811 in effort to reduce EMS response times

Under the new EMS-811 Shared Response program, non-urgent calls will be diverted to registered nurses with Health Link at 811. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)
Under the new EMS-811 Shared Response program, non-urgent calls will be diverted to registered nurses with Health Link at 811. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)

Albertans who call 911 for help could be diverted to a registered nurse at 811 instead of being sent an ambulance, in an effort to speed up EMS response times.

It's part of Alberta Health Services' new EMS-811 Shared Response program, which will work to transfer non-urgent calls directly to Health Link.

The nurse will then do a further assessment of the situation and provide the caller with necessary health advice and referrals.

Urgent and life-threatening calls will continue to receive ambulance response.

"Every minute counts for Albertans with a serious medical emergency," said Minister of Health Jason Copping at a news conference Thursday. "This change frees up paramedics to focus on life-threatening and urgent calls."

"Stepping down these calls will mean freeing up ambulances and paramedics [for] up to 40,000 calls a year, where an ambulance response isn't required."

David Bell/CBC
David Bell/CBC

The province says non-urgent calls account for up to 10 to 20 per cent of total 911 call volumes, depending on the area.

Dispatchers will continue to follow their usual protocols to assess a caller's situation. The program won't affect 811 access, since 911 calls will stream through a dedicated line.

There was a trial for the program last month. In the two weeks it ran, six per cent of 911 calls were transferred to 811.

Copping says there's other work underway to improve the EMS response, including fast tracking transfers from paramedics to emergency departments and changing the way low-acuity transfers between hospitals and facilities are handled.

Collaboration makes sense, says ER doctor

Dr. Eddy Lang, an emergency room physician in the Calgary zone, says he's pleased that work is being done to reduce long EMS response times — especially because they're related to prolonged wait times in the emergency department.

"It just makes so much sense," said Lang. "If we're an integrated health care system, then there should be dialogue and collaboration between 811 and 911."

Lang says this new process highlights the point that 811 is a valuable service for Albertans to utilize.

He adds that while the new process should help, Albertans won't see a dramatic improvement in EMS response times until the province addresses the system's main stumbling block: getting paramedics out of hospital corridors and back onto the street.

More permanent staff needed, says union

Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta — the union that represents paramedics and 911 dispatchers in Alberta — said in a statement that this process change may help a bit, but it doesn't address the full scale of the problem.

HSAA website
HSAA website

"This government seems like it will do anything but add permanent staff to solve staff shortage issues in emergency medical services," said Parker in the statement.

He says the announcement doesn't address improved working conditions for staff — and failing to consider the impacts on workers isn't providing help.

"Until we see more permanent paramedics and [emergency communications officers], Albertans will still be waiting to see that any help is on the way."

Len Stelmaschuk, president of the Alberta Paramedic Association, said in a statement the program has strong potential to improve EMS response times, but he wonders about the qualifications of 911 dispatchers.

"If 811 provides access to medical consultation such as nursing, what medical training do our 911 operators have, if any?" said Stelmaschuk in the statement.

"Dispatch is probably the 'key component' in providing responses within the EMS, medical-driven environment, and therefore there needs to be more investigation on what and how our current system is being provided and how it can be improved upon."