COLUMN: A promising prognosis for change

A total of eight new ambulances are being added and 34 paramedics are being hired and will bolster service in Surrey and Delta.

Changes to B.C.’s ambulance service, announced on Feb. 5 by B.C. Emergency Health Services, should prove beneficial to residents in Surrey and Delta.

A total of eight new ambulances are being added and 34 paramedics are being hired. Three of the eight new ambulances will be based in Surrey and none of them will be based in Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver, with its high concentration of health institutions, has long been well-served by the ambulance service. B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) has recognized that it is the fast-growing regions around the city that need help the most.

Thus, Langley and Abbotsford will also get two new ambulances each, while the North Shore will get the eighth one. Meanwhile, in the Tri-Cities area, new paramedics will be hired.

This is a significant recognition that, in fast-growing areas (mostly within Fraser Health Authority), the level of service provided isn’t up to the highest standards. BCEHS’s target is that in 75 per cent of calls for service, an ambulance will arrive in under nine minutes.

BCEHS Executive Vice-President Linda Lupini said that new ambulances and more staff are only part of the answer to improving response times. BCEHS is looking at a number of ways to speed up response times. Among the most important is to reduce the amount of time paramedics wait in hospital emergency rooms to hand over incoming patients.

For these waiting times to be reduced, hospitals, particularly in the FHA, need to make reforms to how they deal with patients in the emergency departments. This will not be easy. Wait times in the busiest FHA hospitals often stretch out for many hours.

Lupini also said a number of calls that are currently made to the ambulance service can be redirected, with patients dealing with a physician over the phone  or paramedics seeing and treating patients without taking them to the hospital.

Local fire departments have been complaining about the long wait times for ambulances, as firefighters who respond to medical distress calls must wait until the ambulance arrives. This has the potential to tie up firefighters when they are needed elsewhere.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis is optimistic about the changes, saying he believes they will make the system more efficient.

The changes could go further, but there isn’t likely the political will to do so. Firefighters are first responders and have taken on that role for many years. However, they are not paramedics and their duties when arriving on scene are primarily to stabilize patients.

Municipalities could agree to have firefighters trained as paramedics and thus assume more of the costs for health care, which is a provincial responsibility. Or conversely, the ambulance service could expand even further and actually take over as first responders.

Neither move is particularly likely, given that municipalities are reluctant to spend more of their budgets on health care. The province, meanwhile, has greatly benefitted from the effective download of some of its health care responsibilities to local taxpayers.

No matter if there are more significant changes in the works or not, the additional ambulances and paramedics coming to the fastest-growing areas of B.C. will be busy from the moment they arrive. The population of Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford and other surrounding areas will keep growing, and people who move there need to have timely access to medical services.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.


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