P.E.I. paramedics 'stretched to the max,' says union

In the last three years, call volumes for Island ambulances have steadily increased. The union that represents P.E.I. paramedics says workers are getting more tired and stressed as a result.

Union says higher call volume, added responsibilities taking toll on paramedics

Jason Woodbury, president of CUPE 3324, says his members are stressed about the high volume of ambulance calls on P.E.I. He believes the increase is a result of the aging population, and the fact paramedics now respond to palliative care patients in their homes. (CBC)

An increase in ambulance calls have left paramedics across P.E.I. feeling tired, stressed and "stretched to the max", according to the union.

Jason Woodbury says in his last 12 years as president of CUPE 3324, he has never seen his members so fragile.

"These problems are getting worse. The call volumes are increasing. The workload on our members are increasing and something is going to give eventually," said Woodbury, who is based in Summerside, P.E.I.

In the last three years, call volumes for Island ambulances have steadily increased. Between January and September, the number of calls jumped from 8,871 in 2016 to 10,368 in 2018. Those numbers do not include the final quarters for each year.

Palliative care

Woodbury says the high call volumes stem from added responsibilities placed on paramedics in recent years, including palliative care.

"With all the skills paramedics have, it's great but without building resources in the system, then the fatigue on the paramedics are going to increase," he said.

"In the long term, the residents of Prince Edward Island are suffering because of the lack of resources in the system."

Island EMS declined an interview, citing contract negotiations with the union. Health PEI, which is responsible for managing the Ground Ambulance Service Agreement also refused an interview — opting to send an email statement instead.

"The introduction of the Paramedics Providing Palliative Care at Home Program in late 2016 (a partnership with Home Care and Island EMS) has actually reduced unnecessary/inappropriate transport of palliative patients to emergency departments — reducing paramedic offload time at emergency departments and helping to keep paramedics in our communities," a spokesperson for Health PEI said in an email.

The email said palliative care related calls represent two per cent of the call volume within the ground ambulance program.

However, Woodbury says — on average — paramedics are spending 80 minutes with each palliative patient. 

Emergency calls only

At least once a day, Woodbury says Island EMS is so busy that it is only able to respond to emergency calls. That means there aren't enough ambulances available to do house calls. 

He believes adding more resources for off-Island transfers would make a big difference.

"The worst case that I have responded to, I was the closest ambulance to do an emergency call, and I was sitting in Saint John, New Brunswick after doing an off-Island transfer," said Woodbury. 

"The problem is because of lack of resources and the amount of off-Island transfers that we are providing."

In the last three years, call volumes for Island ambulances have steadily increased. (Pat Martel/CBC)

He says at least two ambulances leave the Island each day, taking patients to hospitals in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

According to Health PEI, there are currently 16 ground ambulance units in service at peak times during the day — 14 are ambulances and two units transfer patients across the island. 

Additionally, there are three "rapid response" units operating — smaller vehicles that aren't able to transport patients.

Worker injured

Last summer, Woodbury says the exhaustion of driving to Halifax and back during a night shift put one of his members in danger. A paramedic was driving home after his shift, when he fell asleep and crashed his car.

"He ended up having a significant injury to his lower back and not able to work, so this certainly is going to trickle down to the workers and it's extremely shameful that the employer is not listening to our concerns and our suggestions to make the system better," said Woodbury.

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