Nova Scotia

Paramedics continue to campaign for shorter offload times after 7 ambulances wait in Sydney

The union representing Nova Scotia paramedics is continuing its campaign over lengthy wait times for offloading patients at hospitals after 7 ambulances were stuck outside the emergency department at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital on Monday.

'This particular incident seems to be more than usual,' says union

Seven ambulances were lined up outside the Cape Breton Regional Hospital emergency department on Monday, waiting to offload patients. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The union representing paramedics in Nova Scotia is willing to give the new PC government the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn't mean it's going to stop its campaign to highlight the lengthy wait times for ambulances offloading patients at hospitals.

On Monday afternoon, seven ambulances were waiting outside the emergency department at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney.

"This particular incident seems to be more than usual," said Michael Nickerson, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727.

"We do see offload delays at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, but usually there's not seven ... ambulances tied up at one time."

Emergency departments at community hospitals in New Waterford, Glace Bay and North Sydney are all closed indefinitely, leaving the regional hospital with the only open emergency room in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

The Strait Richmond Hospital in Evanston and the Victoria County Memorial Hospital in Baddeck were also closed Monday. Both were scheduled to reopen Tuesday.

Province: Multiple factors for ambulance delays

Barb O'Neill, director of emergency services for Nova Scotia Health's eastern zone, said Monday was "an extremely busy day" for the emergency department in Sydney, but there was no single reason for that.

"We had a lot of registrations yesterday and moving people through our system when there's that many, it takes time," she said Tuesday.

Ambulance offload times are affected by the number of patients taking up acute care beds in the emergency department, some of whom are waiting for placement in a long-term care facility or waiting for transfer to another facility, O'Neill said.

Rural emergency department closures likely added to the volume of patients at the regional hospital, she said, but having seven ambulances waiting is unusual.

In an emailed statement, Charbel Daniel, executive director of provincial operations with Emergency Health Services, said seven is not a lot if patients are discharged within the 30-minute target for ambulance offloads.

"If not, it is a significant issue," he said. "However, we continue to work with Nova Scotia Health on patient access and flow for the entire health system."

Offload times increased this summer

Data from Nova Scotia Health shows the average ambulance offload times since February have increased dramatically at most regional hospitals.

The average offload time for 90 per cent of patients since February at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital has been about 68 minutes. That's more than double the provincial target of 30 minutes.

From June to August, the average wait time grew to 75 minutes. 

Wait times were even longer elsewhere in the province, with the South Shore Regional Hospital in Bridgewater averaging 121 minutes in July. The Colchester-East Hants Health Centre in Truro averaged 201 minutes, the Cobequid Community Health Centre in Lower Sackville averaged 244 minutes, Dartmouth General averaged 185 minutes and the Halifax Infirmary averaged 403 minutes.

Michael Nickerson, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, says paramedics have to give the new Progressive Conservative government time to make changes and fix some health-care problems. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Nickerson said he doesn't know why seven ambulances were at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital at the same time Monday, but offload wait times have been a persistent problem.

"Any time a paramedic crew is delayed at the hospital, that's concerning because there's less crews out in the streets available to respond to emergencies," he said.

Nickerson also said the closure of rural emergency departments means paramedics are driving farther and leaving outlying communities to head for Sydney.

Code Critical campaign continues

The paramedics' union has been running what it calls a "Code Critical" campaign on social media for nearly three years, highlighting times when ambulance availability is limited across the province.

Nickerson said the union is pleased with the new PC government's recent tour to ask front-line health-care workers, including paramedics, for suggestions on ways to improve health care.

"We're going to keep our Code Critical going for the time being," he said.

"We don't want the public to think that ... the problem is fixed when clearly it's not, but we do have to give the government time to make some changes and fix some of the problems."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 17 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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