Community paramedic program frees up more ambulances for serious patients

For years, Hamilton's paramedics have been telling the city they are pushed to the limit — and now, the provincial government is funding a project that helps limit unnecessary 911 calls and free up ambulances for serious emergency calls.

Hamilton's paramedic system is trying to eliminate unnecessary calls that tie up ambulances

The provincial government is funding a community paramedic project in Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

For years, Hamilton's paramedics have been telling the city they are pushed to the limit — and now the provincial government is funding an innovative project that helps limit unnecessary 911 calls and free up ambulances for serious emergency calls.

The money comes at a time when the city ranks well below the Ontario average for offloading patients at local hospitals, and there still aren't enough ambulances to go around, at times.

The community paramedic program — which previously existed as a pilot project — is becoming permanent in Hamilton with a $260,000 funding boost from the province.

The program exists to try and lessen demands from "frequent" 911 callers, says Hamilton Paramedic Service Deputy Chief Russell Crocker. A frequent user is someone who calls 911 five times or more in a year.

"We're collaborating with the health care system, instead of just being the reactive piece," Crocker said.

A lot of the people the program encounters are seniors, or people who have addiction and mental health issues. In many cases, paramedics shift people to the right social service, like social workers or nurse practitioners, so they're not using 911 on speed dial.

Crocker said the service doesn't have all the data they need to analyze the project, but noted there was a 59 per cent decrease in 911 calls by high users in 2015.

In 2016, 94 people chose to participate in the program, Crocker said. If each of those people were calling 911 at least five times a year, that means more than one ambulance freed up per day for another call.

Offloading times for ambulances at Hamilton hospitals are above the provincial average. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Any decrease is a positive, as the pressure on the system grows. According to a recent report, there was a seven per cent demand increase in 911 calls in Hamilton last year, coupled with a cumulative increase of 35 per cent over the past seven years.

There are also problems with "offloading times" for patients at area hospitals.

That same report says the provincial recommendation is that 90 per cent of patients are offloaded from an ambulance within 30 minutes at a hospital. The provincial average last December was 46 minutes.

In Hamilton, it took a lot longer. In December of 2016, it took 107 minutes for patients to be offloaded at Hamilton General, 112 minutes at Juravinski, at 91 minutes at St. Joe's.

With issues like that, programs like the community paramedic one help, Crocker says. It's especially useful in cases of diabetic issues or congestive heart failure.

Through the newly funded program, patients are able to test their blood sugars or blood pressure, and the data is electronically transferred to paramedics. If they're abnormal, they'll follow up.

"It's a really efficient way to do it," Crocker said.