The company that owns Prince Edward Island's ambulance service, Island EMS, is indeed facing a staffing shortage but company officials say it's not as serious as was recently stated in the P.E.I. Legislature.
Tuesday in the legislature, Opposition health critic Michele Beaton said there had been five ambulance shifts this past weekend where the vehicles remained parked because there were no paramedics available to staff them. She said there were six vacancies on the horizon for Wednesday.
"Most days we are fully staffed," said Matt Crossman, health services vice president with Medavie, the company that owns and operates Island EMS. Vacancies are normally only a few hours until back-up staff can be called in, he said.
He said sick calls resulted in three ambulances staying off the roads over the weekend, not five, and that ambulances were fully staffed Wednesday.
"[Vacancies are] more frequent the last number of years and months, as we started to see more health human resources challenges," Crossman told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier.
Here's how ambulance staffing works now across P.E.I., according to Crossman: Island EMS has 14 ambulances scheduled during daytime including two transfer units and three mobile integrated health units. Nine units are scheduled each night. So most days, the service has a total of 23 shifts or units on the road, Crossman said. Typically three to five of those ambulances are transporting patients off-Island.
Island EMS is short about half a shift each 24-hour period, he said, with occasionally as many as two vacant shifts per day out of the 23.
"We monitor the system very closely, we make sure that we're able to meet the needs across the Island, and we're really heavily focused on recruitment and retention amongst our staff over the last number of years," Crossman said. He said the company also has a fairly large list of part-time and casual employees it can call in.
Ambulance calls have grown 26%
He said while Island EMS is facing challenges similar to other health-care companies in Canada, it has been "lucky" to face only two to three staffing vacancies per year.
He said it's harder to recruit paramedics to work in western P.E.I., as well as to recruit advanced-level paramedics.
I do take a little bit of offense when people say that we're not providing care, because our staff really are working above and beyond. — Matt Crossman
And, he noted, in the last five years, the number of ambulance calls has grown by 26 per cent. Response times "remain stable" he said, and the company moves resources around the Island to make sure communities are served.
Friday's collision involving a school bus in Kingston, to which five ambulances responded and provided care to more than two dozen people, was a test on the system, Crossman noted.
"When people need an ambulance, we want to make sure that there's one available and they're able to provide care," he said. Island EMS also uses mobile-integrated health units instead of ambulances to provide care on-site when patients don't need hospital care. It's also exploring alternatives such as tele-triage, in which care can be provided by phone, as well as remote patient monitoring.
The Opposition also said there are times one ambulance stationed in the middle of the province, in Hunter River, is meant to respond to calls from O'Leary in the west to Souris in the east. The paramedics' union backed up that claim.
However, Crossman said this situation is "rare," noting the company's mobile-integrated health units are usually available, plus duty managers who are trained paramedics — including him — who can jump in an available ambulance to fill in if needed.
Paramedics want new opportunities, too
Meanwhile, paramedics on P.E.I. have contracts with Health PEI to help provide care at a collaborative emergency care centre, test patients for COVID-19 and to work at the Prince County Hospital due to a shortage of nurses. It's also involved in new mobile mental health units launched this fall.
"These are great opportunities for paramedics," that paramedics themselves have asked for, Crossman said, and staff are not being spread too thin. He said such professional opportunities are integral to attracting paramedics to P.E.I. to work "so that they can advance through their career and work in other aspects of the health-care system.
"I'm really proud … I do take a little bit of offense when people say that we're not providing care, because our staff really are working above and beyond to make sure that the care is delivered when people need it," Crossman said.
Paramedics on P.E.I. have been working without a contract since December 2018, he said.