Windsor hospital hiring 7 'offload assistants' to help with ambulance shortage

Essex-Windsor EMS has noticed a rise in Code Black minutes since July.  (Windsor-Essex EMS/Facebook - image credit)
Essex-Windsor EMS has noticed a rise in Code Black minutes since July. (Windsor-Essex EMS/Facebook - image credit)

Windsor Regional Hospital (WRH) is hiring seven new ambulance offload assistants to help alleviate a months-long ambulance shortage that led Essex County officials to declare an emergency in October.

The emergency was rescinded on Oct. 28, but the shortage has still been an ongoing issue.

Data from Essex-Windsor Emergency Medical Services (EMS) show the amount of time the service was in Code Black, which means there are no ambulances available to respond to an emergency call, has been rapidly rising since July.

EMS Chief Bruce Krauter previously told CBC News that part of the issue is long offloading and admittance times for patients, which tie up the service's 26 ambulances.

"The causes of off-load delays are complex and relating to long-standing issues of hospital capacity, patient flow, a lack of local primary care providers, which causes increased usage of [the] 911 system," he said.

Offload assistants just one way to ease pressures

Jonathan Foster, vice president of emergency services at WRH, said Windsor is following along with other Ontario hospitals by adding offload assistant staff.

"It's not a new concept. It's already being done in other hospitals in the province, notably Ottawa," he said.

"Paramedics will work collaboratively with our offload registered nurses in the emergency department, and that helps facilitate taking patients off of ambulances and taking them into the care of the hospital."

Mike Evans/CBC
Mike Evans/CBC

Foster said WRH currently uses a paramedic offload program, where two paramedics monitor patients who are unable to be seen by overwhelmed emergency rooms.

He said the offload assistants will assess patients, monitor them and relieve pressure on emergency rooms.

"It really increases our capacity to quickly offload ambulances and get them freed up and back on the road," he said.

Ambulance shortages caused by the high patient volume isn't the only challenge WRH is dealing with, Foster said, and they have taken several steps to address the strain put on the hospital system.

Foster said that since the pandemic, WRH has added over 400 new staff members to deal with the high volume of patients. It's also opened 60 additional beds across Windsor's hospital system and added more physicians and nurses.

New positions might lead to paramedic burnout, union leader says

James Jovanovic, president of CUPE Local 2974, the union that represents Windsor-Essex paramedics, told CBC News he has concerns about WRH hiring paramedics as offloading assistants.

"Hiring additional resources at the hospital should in theory help with the offload, delays and freeing up of ambulances in order to get back on the road and be available for 911 response," he said.

Jacob Barker/CBC
Jacob Barker/CBC

However, hiring from Windsor-Essex's pool of paramedics, Jovanovic said, reduces the amount of available paramedics to operate ambulances.

"For an EMS service that's already short staffed, that would theoretically be a potential for further depleting our resources in EMS, which could lead to burnout, which could lead to increased sick time," he said.

"It's certainly an interesting development, but I think that there might be some other consequences of that are yet to be seen."