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Ontario paramedics say offload delays getting worse amid staff shortages, ER closures

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Ontario paramedics' groups say health-care staffing shortages and recent temporary emergency room closures are exacerbating delays in getting patients into hospitals -- and ambulances back in the community.

Darryl Wilton, president of the Ontario Paramedic Association, said in a recent interview ambulance offload delays -- when paramedics wait in an emergency department for a patient to be transferred to the care of a hospital -- have gotten 12 times longer in the last year alone.

Offload delays of one to two hours were previously considered extreme, but now some patients and paramedics are waiting 10 to 15 hours, he said in a recent interview.

"A patient could be picked up this afternoon and not be offloaded until sometime tomorrow morning, and that's not unusual anymore," he said. That means multiple paramedic crews may be caring for the same patient over several shifts, he added.

The worsening delays are "having a massive impact on paramedic availability," and the effects ripple out through neighbouring communities, Wilton said.

"This is something that, plain and simple, requires beds and staff to fix the problem," he said.

Neal Roberts, member and past president of the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs, said staffing shortages across the health-care sector, combined with the recent temporaryhospital closures and a slight uptick in calls for paramedic care have created "almost like a perfect storm and a bit of a domino (effect)."

Roberts, chief of the Middlesex-London Paramedic Service, said the closures also force paramedics to take patients to hospitals further away, which takes more time and reduces service in their community.

Just as hospitals are seeing shortages in nurses and doctors, paramedic services have also been stretched thin due to increased demand and the expansion of their duties during the pandemic, he said.

"We've hired upwards of, I think, 50-odd staff this year and we still could hire more," he said. "It's just the more we hire, the more we need -- and we're just seeing this across all health care."

Some hospitals -- including Lakeridge Health's Bowmanville hospital and the Seaforth Community Hospital in Huron County -- have announced closures or reduced hours ahead of the long weekend.

Several Ontario hospitals have previously warned that emergency department closures could be a recurring issue this summer as a result of staffing shortages. Rural areas have been particularly affected, with communities such as Perth, Clinton and Wingham seeing their ERs close for stretches as long as several days.

Offloading delays predate the COVID-19 pandemic but paramedics' groups say the issue has gotten worse during the health crisis.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, the Ontario government issued a memo to emergency services, telling them to consider having paramedic crews tend to more than one patient at a time in ERs -- something known as "batching" patients -- so that paramedics could return to service more quickly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2022.

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