Rural ambulance crews will now be able to transport patients to non-emergency facilities, a practice already seen in Calgary and Edmonton, in the hopes of reducing the amount of time crews spend waiting in hospitals.
The first phase of the program will allow crews across the province to deliver patients to 10 facilities, including hospices and health-care centres.
"Any paramedic can tell you a given patient may need an ambulance but doesn't always need to go to a hospital emergency department," said Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
"Sometimes, the right care for that patient is available at another health facility — one that's closer and that can see the patient more quickly."
Shandro said there are no estimates on how much time the program will save for paramedics working in a strained system, and that the ultimate goal is to provide the best care options for patients.
He said the effectiveness of freeing up EMS crews will be evaluated as the program develops.
EMS crews have to wait with their patients when delivering them to emergency departments, a process that can trap them in a hospital for hours even if the system is busy with calls.
Paramedics, speaking to CBC News confidentially because they could lose their jobs for talking to the media, said the announcement could help reduce wait times and prevent rural crews from getting stuck in the cities following transport to a hospital, but they had concerns.
"The zones were, we have the highest number of Albertans (mainly Calgary and surrounding area, Edmonton and surrounding area, and Central Zone) — this doesn't change anything," said one paramedic.
"We have always transported to urgent cares. Hospices have been transfers since forever."
That same paramedic said you can't just deliver to a hospice on a whim. The patient must have a bed and the hospice must accept them.
"It is true that many more patients could go to the urgent cares, but there is a historic reluctance because we used to get refused a lot," said the paramedic.
Red alerts in Calgary
In 2019, the EMS system in the Calgary zone experienced periodic red alerts — meaning no ambulances were available — on 116 days.
Some of those lasted for only the blink of an eye, while others were nearly continuous for over an hour.
The Calgary zone stretches well beyond the city and into surrounding rural areas.
Paramedics speaking to CBC News last year said the system strain was due to a variety of factors, including increased calls without an increase in resources, a shortage of staff, bed shortages at hospitals as well as the inability to quickly drop off patients at hospital.