Heavy workloads and staff shortages for EMS in Alberta are hindering efforts to train a new generation of paramedics.
Post-secondary programs for primary care and advanced care paramedics have mandatory workplace training components known as practicums, where students work on ambulances and in hospitals while under the supervision of an experienced professional. They are considered an essential part of the coursework required to become a licensed professional.
"It's absolutely vital that [students] have those opportunities," said Scott Mullin, coordinator of the paramedic programs at Medicine Hat College.
However, finding mentors or preceptors is becoming more difficult at the same time the Alberta government is increasing seats in paramedic programs. Workloads for paramedics have increased due to staffing shortages and higher call volumes, said Ben Rauschning, chair of the primary and advanced care paramedic programs at NAIT.
"The workload is intense and so it's not always easy to take that added responsibility to have a student," he said.
The difficulty securing practicums was identified in the final report of the Alberta Emergency Medical Services Provincial Advisory Committee released on Monday.
"Call volumes and staff shortages have led to a situation where many EMS practitioners are forced to work overtime, are tired, and face stressful paces of work," the report states. " Amid these dynamics, taking on practicum students is understandably difficult."
The committee suggests in one of its 53 recommendations that the province offer employers and practitioners incentives to take on students.
The recommendation also suggests the province review how many clinical placements are required to accommodate paramedic students, and then set targets for EMS ambulance service providers to meet each year.
Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents 3,500 paramedics, said the recommendation identifies the root of the problem but fails to address it.
"Our professionals are overworked. Accommodating practicum students isn't difficult under current working conditions, it's practically impossible," he said.
Parker said the province needs to first focus on improving working conditions for current EMS staff.
"Once we stop working them to exhaustion and beyond, they will again be able to properly mentor, and prepare for duty, the incoming professionals we desperately need."
New funding for more seats
Alberta had 1,426 students in paramedic and emergency medical responder programs at both publicly-funded post-secondary institutions and private career colleges last year. SAIT in Calgary has the largest enrolment in Alberta, with 224 students taking its programs.
AHS EMS provided 434 ambulance practicums in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Students can also do practicums with private ambulance services.
The Alberta government announced $826,000 to add 46 new seats to paramedic programs across the province. While that will help increase the number of professionals in the province, they can't graduate without completing the practicum portions of their program.
That's why some are calling for the province to fix the practicum problem before expanding seats in diploma programs.
College of Paramedics registrar Tim Ford was on the provincial advisory committee. He said employers would love to hire more new graduates and institutions would like to increase their seats but the practicum shortage remains a bottleneck on the system.
"I think increasing the class size is a great concept, but it really isn't probably actionable until we can increase the pool or the uptake of paramedic practicums," he said.
Mullin said Medicine Hat College takes on 32 students a year. He said occasionally students face delays in starting their practicums and about one or two students per year have had to delay graduation because of them.
Despite the need for trained professionals in the field, Mullin said the province should meet the needs of the current group of students before funding additional seats.
Rauschning said the NAIT program is intended to get students out to their practicums immediately after completing their lectures and lab work. Sometimes the start of those placements is delayed but not enough to impede a student's graduation, he said.
Health Minister Jason Copping said on Monday that he accepted all the recommendations in the EMS report. The province plans to work on an implementation plan.