New Brunswick

'Rapid response' paramedic units announced for rural New Brunswick

The New Brunswick government is introducing a new "rapid response" paramedics pilot program to improve access to emergency medical care in rural areas, Health Minister Benoît Bourque announced Wednesday.

Pilot program will improve access to emergency medical care, health minister says

New Brunswick Health Minister Benoît Bouque announces a pilot project to speed up the response to medical emergencies in rural areas, where ambulances are sometimes not staffed, understaffed or just slow.

The New Brunswick government plans to launch a "rapid response" paramedics pilot program in rural areas this fall to improve access to emergency medical care, ​Health Minister Benoît Bourque announced Wednesday.

Under the program, a lone primary care paramedic will be dispatched to 911 calls in his or her assigned region and will stabilize patients until an ambulance arrives.

"They will be able to arrive faster at the scene of an emergency and provide care immediately until an ambulance truck arrives," said Bourque.

The five rapid response units will be established in Minto/Chipman, Grand Bay-Westfield, Kedgwick/Saint-Quentin, the Acadian Peninsula and southwest Miramichi — some of the areas the government has faced recent criticism over out-of-service ambulances and slow response times because of a shortage of paramedics.

On June 5, David Harvey, a 54-year-old carpenter from Nash Creek who went into cardiac arrest, died awaiting an ambulance dispatched from Dalhousie, about 30 kilometres away, while the ambulance in Jacquet River, just three kilometres away, sat unstaffed.

His parents, aged 75 and 80, who desperately took turns pumping his chest, are left tormented, wondering if better staffing could have saved their son.

Paramedics have protested the staffing shortages, describing the situation as "critical." The members of CUPE Local 4848 blame in part a lawsuit settlement that requires Ambulance NB to provide New Brunswickers from both linguistic communities service in the language of their choice.

Won't transport patients

The rapid response units will have the same equipment of ambulances, with the exception of stretchers, because they won't be transporting patients. (CBC)

The rapid response units announcement comes just two months before the provincial election, but Bourque said it's not part of a pre-election campaign.

"​These are issues that we've been hearing for a long time so this is not anything new. We are committed to ensuring that New Brunswickers have the proper access to health care in terms of first response in emergency situations."

The rapid response units will "increase the health care system's capacity to treat patients, particularly when ambulances are responding to a high volume of calls," he said.

They will be staffed 12 hours a day, seven days a week and will be equipped with much of the same life-saving equipment found on ambulances.

But unlike ambulances, they won't transport patients. They will remain in the geographic area they're assigned to, said Richard Losier, chief executive officer of Ambulance New Brunswick.

"So they're not part of the dynamic deployment system that we have," which involves ambulances being moved around to help cover the area of a dispatched ambulance.

"Once a call has finished and an ambulance has taken a patient to hospital, that unit is already ready to go, so that is important. … They're going to be ready to roll."

Ambulance New Brunswick CEO Rick Losier said the service was short 250 staff members 10 years ago, but the number has dropped to about 90 or 100. (CBC)

Losier expects the program will be operating by "mid- to late-fall," once vehicles have been procured and equipped and paramedics hired.

It's unclear how the province will manage to recruit for the new positions when it's having difficulty filling existing vacancies, in part because of bilingualism requirements.

The health minister acknowledged the staffing problems and said the government must abide by the Official Languages Act but said the province is working hard on recruitment and he's confident the staffing levels will improve.

Jean-Pierre Savoie, director of operations for Ambulance New Brunswick, said it is working with the union and will have meetings in the fall. (CBC)

Jean-Pierre Savoie, director of operations for Ambulance New Brunswick, said recruitment and retention are a "challenge" faced by all health-care professions.

"We are all suffering from a lack of staff."

ANB has a national recruitment campaign underway and is working with schools that have paramedic programs, hoping to entice new graduates, said Savoie.

It has also committed to meet with the union in the fall, he said.

Care during wait

But the paramedics he spoke to following the announcement are "really excited" about the rapid response units, he said.

"I think it's another asset that we're going to have to help with our response time and provide patient care sooner while we're waiting for an ambulance sometimes to arrive."

About $258,000 has already been set aside for this fiscal year for the vehicles and staffing, with $1 million pledged for 2019-2020 and another $1 million in 2020-21, government officials said.

"Hopefully, this will be a start of something new and better moving forward," Losier said.

New Brunswickers will head to the polls on Sept. 24.