EHS situation critical: concerns rise over system shortages

By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
August 26 2020

GUYSBOROUGH - No one ever wants to call an ambulance, but if the need should arise, you expect help to be on the way as soon as you dial 911. But these days in Nova Scotia you can never be sure what you’ll get or when you’ll get it when you call those three digits.

Before the pandemic hit in March, there were frequent stories in the media about ambulances being tied up waiting to offload patients at hospitals across the province. That situation was significantly reduced during the early months of the state of emergency. Michael Nickerson, business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) local 727 representing paramedics, told the CBC in an interview in mid-August that call volumes were down in the last few months. But now that the first wave of the pandemic has evened out, those concerns have returned along with many more about unfilled shifts and unstaffed ambulances.

Earlier this month the union that represents Nova Scotia Paramedics, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, launched a social media campaign that highlighted, on a daily basis, the number of shifts that went unstaffed and the number of ambulances out of service across the province.

In the weeks that followed, some of the numbers shared on the IUOE NS Paramedics Facebook page and Twitter feed have been eye-popping. On August 15 they reported that to the best of their knowledge, 31 shifts went unfilled. The numbers vary from day to day and the union explained in a post on August 10 that shifts go unfilled because paramedics are “overworked and under-appreciated.” The post said paramedics are tired and “don’t want to take overtime just to deal with missed meals, offload delays and shift overruns.”

The campaign has grabbed the attention of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Caucus which issued a press release on August 18 titled, “Broken ambulance system requires government remedy immediately.” In the release, Progressive Conservative MLA for Argyle-Barrington Colton LeBlanc—a former paramedic—stated that current issues facing paramedics are a “significant healthcare concern for the public when there are not sufficient ambulances based around the province. Paramedics are being made to work overtime which is leading to burnout.”

He adds: “The frightening condition of the broken system and working conditions are weighing heavy on the minds of paramedics. If action is not taken to immediately address the issues of the ambulance system, there will be an increase of deteriorating injury and worse, loss of life for Nova Scotians.”

The news release concludes by calling on the Minister for Health and Wellness Randy Delorey and the premier to fix the ambulance system “to prevent further catastrophic consequences.”

In the MODG, ambulance service is of particular concern due to the fact that the emergency departments in both Canso and Guysborough hospitals are intermittently closed.

The Journal questioned Emergency Health Services (EHS), the ambulance service provider in Nova Scotia, about the provision of service in the MODG and received the following email response from Remo Zaccagna, a spokesperson for EHS. “The provincial EHS system is dynamic, which means it is designed to move and flex as demands (including 911 calls for ambulance) reduce the number of available ambulance resources. When an ambulance stationed in one community is assigned to a call, the next closest available ambulance is moved into coverage patterns.

“At times, EHS paramedics will be posted to strategic locations to provide coverage for more than one community. The EHS system is not a static system where ambulances are dedicated to specific locations. The system was designed that way to provide optimized levels of EHS coverage for the entire province 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including areas such as MODG.”

Working to address concerns about emergency department closures and ambulance availability, The Journal asked the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) if such closures and EHS coverage was coordinated. A spokesperson for NSHA emailed the following statement: “We have ongoing communication protocols with EHS when we experience emergency department closures and they adjust their response capacity as appropriate.

“In the meantime, it is important to note primary care services continue to be provided to the people of the Guysborough area as the physicians see patients at their practice where most of their health care needs can be met. The physicians are also providing service to inpatients and long-term care patients.”