Paramedic house calls 'a godsend' for nursing homes battling flu outbreaks

A paramedic house call program launched in December is aimed at keeping the lid on flu outbreaks at long-term care homes and taking the strain off local hospitals.

Ottawa's paramedic house call program launched in December

Ottawa's community paramedics, including Robert Wilson, spend time visiting elderly patients with influenza to keep them out of hospitals. 0:50

When Robert Wilson first enters Vicky Gorgichuk's bright room at Chartwell Stonehaven Retirement Residence, she seems unsure who he is, or what he's doing there.

"You look like a policeman," Gorgichuk teases the burly, bald man in the dark blue uniform.

"I'm a paramedic, ma'am. How are you feeling today?" Wilson asks.

"Not too great today," Gorgichuk replies from her armchair by the window.

Wilson is one of about a dozen Ottawa paramedics who have started making house calls to both private and city-run long-term care homes.

The paramedic house call program, supported by the Champlain Local Health Integration Network, began in December.

Avoiding hospital trips

Modelled after a similar program in Renfrew County launched in 2013, it's aimed at keeping elderly patients out of hospital waiting rooms and preventing influenza and gastro outbreaks from reaching the general population.

"Your temperature is fine, your blood pressure is fine," Wilson reassures Gorgichuk as the visit comes to an end.

"They're going to keep watching you, and there will be another paramedic who will come in and see you tomorrow. But if you start to feel unwell, you have to make sure that you call the staff so they can come in and check on you."

Gorgichuk agrees.

"Also, I need you to drink some more water so you stay hydrated ... Can you remember all that stuff?"
Veteran paramedic Robert Wilson visits patients at Chartwell Stonehaven Retirement Residence in Kanata, where some residents have been complaining of flu symptoms. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Fighting the flu

Wilson, a veteran paramedic with 25 years of experience, will deliver non-emergency care to about 15 patients today.

I can come in and interact with people.- Robert Wilson, Ottawa paramedic

In the ongoing fight against the flu, which can be deadly among elderly patients, Wilson is constantly reminding patients to stay hydrated. He'll also treat other flu symptoms including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

"Elderly people and fevers are very bad," Wilson says in the corridor outside Gorgichuk's room.

Nurses at the retirement facilities are on constant guard against signs of an outbreak. When they detect even low-grade fever in more than one resident, they pass the information along to Ottawa Public Health (OPH), which tracks the data and publishes updates twice weekly.

At the first signs of an outbreak, OPH alerts Ottawa paramedics, and the house call teams are dispatched.

Paramedic Robert Wilson checks on retirement home resident Vicky Gorgichuk, who's been feeling unwell. (Stu Mills/CBC)

30 outbreaks

Patients who turn out to be too sick to be treated at the residences are transferred to hospital.

But the goal is to avoid that outcome — Wilson's visit to Stonehaven, a 160-bed private residence in Kanata, helped avoid three hospital transfers that day.

The visiting paramedics take notes on a patient's condition, then relay the information either to the resident's doctor or to the facility's resident nurses.

With OPH currently tracking about 30 outbreaks at long-term care homes across the city, the house call program has arrived at a good time.

'It's a godsend'

"From a timing perspective, [it's] fantastic," said Yasmin Docter-Vachon, Stonehaven's general manager. "It's a godsend."

Docter-Vachon said flu outbreaks force the cancellation of group activities at the home, and keep some residents confined to their rooms.

"It's disruptive for them," she said. 

What can be worse, Docter-Vachon said, is a trip to the hospital. "They end up waiting in emergency for hours and hours. Sometimes people are in beds in the hall."

For Wilson, the program provides a welcome change that clearly fits his extroverted personality.

"I can come in and interact with people," said Wilson. "The lady I just saw was very happy and wanted me to come back tomorrow."