Thunder Bay

Ambulance act changes would benefit Thunder Bay residents, paramedics say

Proposed changes to Ontario's Ambulance Act would likely prove beneficial to residents of Thunder Bay, the chief of Superior North EMS (SNEMS) said.

Changes expected to be in place by spring

Proposed changes to Ontario's Ambulance Act would likely prove beneficial to residents of Thunder Bay, the chief of Superior North EMS (SNEMS) said.

Under current rules, paramedics responding to 911 calls are required to take patients to a hospital emergency room, regardless of whether or not the call is actually a life-threatening emergency, said Wayne Gates, SNEMS chief.

"We have no leeway to take them to any other place," Gates said. "So, for the city of Thunder Bay, essentially all our patients have to be transported to the [Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre emergency department]."

However, Gates said, non-emergency 911 calls have a big impact on SNEMS services, as well as the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre's emergency room.

"[Forty or 50 per cent of] 911 calls are not life-threatening or urgent, where someone needs to get to the emergency department immediately," Gates said. "A lot of them are people that ... are ill, and they need some sort of an assessment, but the emergency department is not the appropriate place."

Gates noted that people call ambulances for a number of reasons. In some cases, they may not have a doctor, and aren't sure where to go if they're ill.

"Other times, they're having a challenge trying to get in to see their physician, and things are getting worse with them," Gates said. "So they end up calling an ambulance."

Changes would give paramedics more leeway

Under the proposed changes to the Ambulance Act — which the province is hoping to have in place by spring — paramedics would have leeway in terms of where they take patients, depending on the nature of the call, Gates said.

Paramedics could, for example, take patients to walk-in clinics, mental health crisis centres, or detox facilities, depending on their needs.

"Someone that's getting a flu or a cold, or not feeling well in general, they would probably get a better level of service an benefit more from being taken to, say, a health practitioner's walk-in clinic," Gates said.

Dispatch system upgrades planned

SNEMS is also looking to upgrade its dispatch system to one that will allow them to better triage and divert calls to the appropriate agency.

"One of the challenges we have with our dispatch system, is they tend to over-prioritize the call that comes in," Gates said. "The majority of calls that come in are given a life-threatening category."

"With changes in that system, it will help provide a better triage over the phone for the person that's calling, and really help paramedics determine is it a true life-threatening call they're going to, or is it something less serious."

The new system would also allow dispatchers to pass a caller over to a health practitioner or other person who may be able to provide assistance over the phone.

Current dispatch system outdated

The current SNEMS dispatch system, Gates said, is very outdated, and presents another challenge — calls are upgraded to life-threatening if a caller uses certain words or phrases.

"My prime example is someone who's had back pain for five days," he said. "It's been a chronic issue with them, but if at any time during the call they indicate they were short of breath, then it becomes a life-threatening call because they used that key word."

"This new dispatch system would actually kind of filter down a bit more into ... are they truly short of breath, or are there are other issues involved."

The system has been in use for many years in other areas, including Toronto. SNEMS hopes to have it in place within the next two years.

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