Staffing challenges need fixing if province wants EMS system improved, paramedics say

AHS says it continues to experience pressure on Emergency Health Services, but hopeful hiring more paramedics and putting more ambulances on the streets reduces the pressure. (Submitted by Alberta Health Services - image credit)
AHS says it continues to experience pressure on Emergency Health Services, but hopeful hiring more paramedics and putting more ambulances on the streets reduces the pressure. (Submitted by Alberta Health Services - image credit)

Alberta's government is moving forward on a suite of changes to the provincial health body, but paramedics are warning attempts to fix EMS issues won't be successful if staffing problems aren't tackled first.

The province is planning to outsource some patient transfers, offloading non-urgent transportation to services like shuttles or taxis.  That move could free up 70 paramedic trips every day, according to Alberta Health Services.

It's an expansion of a pilot project that was running in select communities in Alberta for six months, and is now moving provincewide as one pillar of a broad strategy to reduce hospital pressures and wait times for ambulances and in emergency rooms. Details on the rollout of that expansion and its cost are still sparse.

But private paramedic services and the unions that represent frontline workers say both groups are struggling to find enough workers — and the response times in the health-care system will continue to suffer until that foundational problem is addressed.

"The problem currently in Alberta is lack of trained, registered paramedics to fill all the vacant positions in Alberta both with AHS and Contract Providers," Lorne Dewart, the manager of the East Central Ambulance Association, said.

The Alberta Paramedic Association agreed that any conversations about service delivery face the same issue: there's no one to do the jobs.

"There are only so many regulated paramedics in our province, which makes the notion of privatization as an answer to the problem lacking merit," Len Stelmaschuk, the association president, said.

These groups say paramedics are overworked and get delayed by long hospital wait times.

"There's not enough and we can't find more to replace them. This isn't an Edmonton or an Alberta or a Canadian issue. This is an international concern now," said Mike Parker, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

"Contracting out is only going to open up vacancies in other aspects and put profits into shareholders' pockets."

Parker says there are more than 400 shifts each week left vacant, and that paramedics need full-time employment over contract work and the length of shift hours made more reasonable.

The province has also been working to add more vehicles to ambulance fleets and paramedics to staff them. The government has committed $64 million to address EMS issues (a 12-per-cent increase over the previous year). The province says 911 calls were up 30 per cent in 2022.

AHS says this new non-ambulance transport method won't compete with EMS for staff.

"As a sustained increase in 911 call volume continues to be the 'new normal,' EMS is managing existing EMS resources carefully to ensure those most in need of emergency medical services are being prioritized for immediate care," James Wood, a spokesperson for AHS, said in a statement.

"EMS is doing all it can to find and hire paramedics."

Last year 341 new paramedics were hired by AHS, bringing the total number in the province to 3,075.