Manitobans who were already worried about the diminishing quality of rural health care found another reason for concern last Saturday — ambulance response times.
As the Sun reported last weekend, according to information obtained through an access to information request to Manitoba Health, 15 of 31 rural emergency medical services stations in Westman don’t meet the 30-minute provincial ambulance response time benchmark.
The wait time numbers examine EMS stations during a one-year period ending in March 2013.
Though some communities such as Glenboro, Neepawa, Wawanesa and Hartney consistently exceed that benchmark at least 90 per cent of the time, response rates vary significantly across the region.
Most worrisome are the communities of Souris, Hamiota and McCreary where ambulance response times are anywhere between 11 minutes to nearly a half hour past the government benchmark.
Essentially, if you called 911 for an emergency in one of these communities, you could be waiting between 40 minutes and an hour before an ambulance arrives, 90 per cent of the time. And when it comes to life and death situations, every minute counts.
These are scary statistics for area residents, but response times are governed by several factors that must be accounted for, including the geographical size of the region, roadway accessibility and how the various stations are staffed, to name a few.
For example, the City of Brandon has full-time paramedics housed within the city’s fire halls. As such, chute times — the time it takes from when the call comes in to 911 to when the ambulance leaves the station — are significantly lower than rural ambulance services, which generally rely on casual staff.
Yet even here, Brandon ambulance response times still fall short of the urban standardized response benchmark of nine minutes or less. The city’s two fire halls check in at 9:53 and 11:45 minutes respectively.
A consultant’s report that was commissioned by the provincial minister of health and released in March 2013 suggests that one way to improve response times in northern and rural Manitoba would be to reduce 18 EMS stations over the current 92 stations across the province — 11 of which would be cut from the former Assiniboine RHA region.
While this would not result in significant savings for the province, as the number of ambulances would remain the same, the report suggests that the current model of staffing EMS stations with on-call staff is not sustainable, because rural paramedics have regular jobs and can only take a call with their employer’s permission.
“As the time spent on a transport becomes longer and longer, it is becoming increasingly difficult for on-call EMRs to get the time off from their regular employment,” the report says.
The report also suggests that consolidation of low-volume ambulance stations with larger centres would improve the quality of care for patients. Paramedics stationed at low-volume centres simply don’t have enough work to keep their skill levels high.
Many of the on-call paramedics would be replaced or trained with full-time staff who would be able to handle a larger call volume.
We have no doubt that the removal of EMS stations in Westman will be met with skepticism and mistrust by rural residents who already believe the NDP government has given up on rural Manitoba health care. The province will have an uphill battle to convince communities that further consolidation is necessary.
However, we believe this idea is at least worth considering.
This is not to take away anything from those who work as volunteer paramedics in a small town — the vast majority are dedicated to the work and do their best to help their patients.
But full-time paramedic services for western Manitoba may actually improve response rates and the quality of care for rural patients.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 21, 2014