Paramedic services in Ontario are under serious pressure. Demand for land ambulances is rising and there are growing delays caused by the inability to offload patients at hospitals. As a result, too often, ambulance coverage in Ontario is critically low, putting the health and safety of Ontario residents at risk. Because of funding pressures, municipalities have not responded by increasing scheduled hours for ambulances. Instead, workers are being called upon to miss breaks and work increasing rates of overtime in order to provide desperately needed services.
In 2019, the Canadian Union of Public Employees submitted requests under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to all 22 local governments in municipalities or regions where CUPE represents ambulance workers. We also submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, and looked at publicly available data from the Ministry and from the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs.
The resulting statistical portrait is cause for deep concern. The total volume of emergency calls in Ontario is rising, with the highest rate of growth taking place in the category of calls that demand the most urgent response. The number of times that services are being called on to help each other is also increasing. The number of scheduled hours for ambulances, meanwhile, is not keeping pace with the increasing call volume.
Paramedics are also experiencing increasing delays when it comes to transferring patients to the care of hospitals. Both the number of incidents of offload delay, and the amount of time that ambulances are waiting, are increasing.
As a result of these two pressures, there are far too many occasions where very few ambulances – or even no ambulances – are available within a service region to respond to emergency calls.
The twin pressures of increasing call volume and offload delays are also having a major impact on the workload of paramedics. The amount of overtime required of paramedics is rising annually. Paramedics are also increasingly being expected to miss breaks in order to provide service.
While paramedics continue to do an amazing job of providing care to Ontarians in challenging circumstances, the situation is clearly taking a toll. There are nearly 2,700 claims for workplace illnesses or injuries annually, and the cost of Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims is skyrocketing.
It is time for the Ontario government and municipal governments to take this crisis seriously and take immediate steps to ensure that emergency medical services are there when people need them, without making our paramedics ill or injured through overwork. We recommend four actions:
- The provincial government should increase funding for emergency medical services.
- The provincial government should increase funding for hospitals and public health programs.
- Municipal governments should take a strategic approach to planning emergency medical services.
- The provincial government should require municipalities to collect and provide regular disclosure of information on emergency medical services.