St. Albert’s fire chief called the news of a Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA) review of emergency medical services in Alberta welcome news on Tuesday afternoon.
“I think it’s an opportunity to make sure all the stakeholders have some input,” said Ray Richards, chief of St. Albert Fire Services. “I think it’s a great opportunity for those in the position of making decisions in trying to explain the situation at the other end, so it’s a good quality decision.”
Health and Wellness Minister Fred Horne announced the review at a news conference Tuesday afternoon as part of the government’s response to the HQCA’s most recent report on physician intimidation and strains on the emergency room system.
“We need to determine what the real issues are in emergency services in Alberta and take an evidence-based approach,” Horne said.
In his letter to Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, chair of the HQCA, Horne asks for the council to review the operations of EMS in Alberta with specific regard given to:
• transition issues related to the transfer of governance and funding of ground EMS from municipalities to Alberta Health Services (AHS)
• dispatch consolidation
• challenges specific to integrated fire/EMS service providers
• challenges specific to rural and remote areas of the province
• availability and adequacy of data.
The letter also states the council is not to examine the actual decision by the government to transfer ground ambulance funding and operations to AHS back in 2009.
“The decision to transfer EMS under AHS was a policy decision made by the government,” Horne explained. “I don’t know any other way to say it other than EMS is health care and for many it’s their first point of contact with the health care system, often in dire circumstances.”
Horne said he did not know when the HQCA will complete its review.
“The council will get back to me with their terms of reference and they’ll get back to me with a timeline,” he said.
Richards said the direction to not examine the actual decision means the review will need to subsequently focus on how the present system can be improved under the AHS umbrella.
“If that’s a given, the next step is what do we do to ensure this is about improving patient care,” Richards said. “What can we do differently to ensure the quality of patient care not only in St. Albert but across the province?”
Horne also promised that, based on the reports of physician intimidation, the government will appoint a public inquiry to examine allegations of queue jumping for health services as well as two separate task forces to examine the issue of culture and patient advocacy — one from a governance role and the other focusing on the role of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Horne also said the government accepts all 21 recommendations made in the HQCA report and is taking immediate action as a result.
“We have heard the speed at which the transition to AHS took place contributed to feelings of uncertainty and many other transitional issues in the system,” Horne said. “The government acknowledges the role of the speed of the transition in the problems presented in this report.”
While Edmonton’s problems with ground ambulance have been well documented, St. Albert’s system has come under severe strain since AHS took over ambulance service in 2009. The number of available ambulances was slashed from five to two as a result, which has led to increased response times, longer and more red alerts or periods in which St. Albert has no ambulance coverage, and head-butting with the province over whether or not a third peak-hour ambulance stationed out of the Sturgeon Community Hospital actually benefits local residents.
Two weeks ago AHS took the unprecedented step of releasing response time data to the St. Albert Gazette, which was followed up last week with the creation of an AHS website that publicly displays ambulance response times in the Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas.
Richards hopes that St. Albert Fire Services gets the opportunity to address the EMS review.
“If there’s been a change in the promises that were made in 2009, I think we have to be transparent with the changes that occurred and that the valuation of the service is shared with the entire community.”