The Alberta government is moving to streamline and centralize its ground ambulance dispatch to remedy the current patchwork of systems.
Health Minister Fred Horne has asked for an implementation report by the end of the month and wants to move quickly to improve service.
“What we’re looking to do is finish what we started,” Horne told a news conference Monday in an ambulance bay east of Edmonton’s downtown.
Horne was responding to a report from the watchdog Health Quality Council on recommendations to improve emergency services.
Alberta had planned to move to one provincewide dispatch system in 2009 but it was halted by logistical and mapping concerns, including urban dispatchers being unfamiliar with rural areas.
That same year, all provincial health regions were consolidated into the current Alberta Health Services superboard. Dr. John Cowell, the head of the Health Quality Council, said Alberta Health Services has done good work mapping out optimal routes.
“All of these mix-ups over where do you go — how do you find Aunt Jane out there on Rural Road Number 87 — are going to be solved because an effective map is there and we know where the ambulances are in real time,” said Cowell.
The consolidated dispatch system is one of four Health Quality Council recommendations being accepted and acted upon by Horne’s department.
Horne said he is also implementing a plan to standardize emergency care across Alberta recognizing the unique needs of urban and rural areas.
The implementation plan, including timelines, is to be delivered to Horne by March 31.
He has further ordered up a comprehensive single-source data system to allow for more complete information, along with new rules governing quality and safety management.
In addition to the Health Quality recommendations, Horne has asked for specific provisions to minimize ambulance wait times at major hospitals and options to limit the use of ambulances for routine inter-facility transfers.
Wildrose health critic Heather Forsyth said she will wait to see what happens, noting that often what the government promises to do doesn’t actually take place.
“What we’re seeing here is government that is really just like a dog chasing its tail. It doesn’t know where to start and where to finish,” said Forsyth.
“It will be interesting to see how they roll this all out.”
Liberal health critic David Swann said centralization should never have been abandoned in the first place.
“Where was the planning three years ago?” asked Swann, a medical doctor.
“Why have we gone through three years of chaos, suffering, risks to lives and demoralization in our workforce because our government failed to do a proper approach to this?
“Now we’re playing catch up.”
The quality council report validates the concerns raised by front-line workers, but fails to address some of the major issues, said Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.
“Members of our union went public with problems plaguing EMS because they are professionals who care about patients,” she said.
While the report will help alleviate some of the dispatch and inter-facility transfer problems, “I have seen nothing specifically addressing the concerns about resources, or any guidelines to assist in determining how many ambulance teams are required to meet the needs of Albertans.”
She said EMS workers are the canaries in the coal mine of health care.
“The shortages of long-term care and acute-care beds in Alberta mean our emergency crews are stuck in hospital emergency rooms for hours because there are no staff to take over the care of the patients and no beds to which patients can be admitted,” said Ballermann.
“At first glance, I see no move to address those problems.”