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Ottawa paramedics under pressure after city runs out of ambulances

paramedics ambulances
CAMILO JIMENEZ/UNSPLASH PHOTO

Paramedics don’t usually have to worry about running out of ambulances. Vehicles for transporting sick patients are constantly available in most cities. 

However, that’s not the case in Ottawa. Here, paramedics have been forced to use their vehicles to “store” patients while waiting for hospital staff to offload them. 

According to a report by CBC, Josh Pickness and Colin Waterhouse, two paramedics operating in the Ottawa area, were unable to deliver patients to the emergency room, putting lives on the line. 

The incident occurred on Friday, Aug. 19. The paramedics got a call about a patient in a great degree of distress on the outskirts of town. The ambulance rushed to the location with sirens whirring and lights flashing. Every second counted. 

The pair then assessed the patient at the scene and determined that they required rapid transit to the local Queensway Carleton Hospital for treatment, near Ottawa’s west end. However, as the paramedics turned up at the hospital, they had to stop their rush of activity. There was simply nobody available to take their case to the next stage. The pair arrived to find more than six ambulances already parked outside the ER, with many more awaiting treatment inside. 

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As trained medical professionals, Josh and Colin did what they could for the patient. They used the ambulance facilities to monitor the patient’s condition and ensure that they were in the best possible condition for the transfer. But essentially, they were “stuck.” They couldn’t serve other emergency cases, and they couldn’t provide their existing patients with the care required. 

Ottawa’s public health officials call events like these “offload delays.” Because of congestion in the emergency room, ambulance crews can’t offload their patients, creating knock-on effects in the system. When ambulances are in hospital bays, they can’t go back out on the road and serve other patients. This increases the risk that some will need to wait longer for life-saving treatments, a real threat, according to the two paramedics. 

Paramedics and EMTs are highly trained medical professionals. In the US, many do hours of NREMT test prep and take exams each year to ensure that their skills are up to date. When they are idle, it dramatically increases costs and reduces the return on investment. 

Ottawa’s paramedic service said that, collectively, the city’s emergency healthcare professionals spent around 49,000 hours in offload delays in 2021, implying a cost to the healthcare service running into the tens of millions of dollars. In 2022, the situation is even worse. Officials believe that the total hours lost could top 60,000 by the end of the year, breaking last year’s record. 

It’s frustrating, Colin says. It doesn’t just affect his job, he says, but also his ability to serve patients. He wants to be out on the road, meeting the needs of patients, ensuring that they get the best care. It’s a waste, he says. 

Patients are also expressing frustration. The lack of ambulances isn’t the issue. There are bottlenecks in the rest of the system. They rightfully expect quick emergency healthcare services, but right now they can’t get it.


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