Rural Manitoba paramedics are ringing alarms over what their union calls critical staffing shortages that are leading to severe burnout and hours-long wait times for patients.
Every health region outside of Winnipeg is facing staff shortages, though particularly in the Northern and Interlake-Eastern health regions, as per Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals (MAHCP).
“It’s really coming to that crisis point right now, where our medics are calling out to us daily, that we need to be able to deal with this,” said Moroz.
Between 20% and 30% of shifts in the Interlake-Eastern Health region regularly go unfilled, whereas there are 33% fewer paramedics available on some shifts in the Prairie Mountain Health region, according to the union.
The Northern Health region has a longstanding shortage.
Paramedics are sometimes called to respond to calls up to three hours away.
Job vacancies are going unfilled, with 30 paramedic vacancies recently going unfilled in Prairie Mountain.
Space shortages in hospitals in Winnipeg are compounding the issue, as paramedic crews are usually tied up for hours so as to transfer patients between facilities to free up beds.
“So now that crew is taken essentially out of service in their area to do a transfer, quite often in the middle of the night, for no other reason than because that facility requires that bed to be cleared as soon as possible,” said Moroz.
The shortages are forcing paramedics to work unsustainable levels of overtime, Moroz said.
NDP health-care critic Uzoma Asagwara said the regional government is depending on an understaffed workforce to fill the holes they created with their own cuts, leading to longer waits for critical care.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Shared Health said staffing of emergency response services in rural areas, which has historically been challenging, has been further complicated by COVID-19. They said “significant efforts” are ongoing to enhance staffing levels, including recruitment initiatives and the use of relief staff and contracted services.
Burnout among rural Manitoba paramedics has led some people to transfer out of the regions into Winnipeg, where pay is better and distances are shorter, Moroz said. Others simply leave the profession altogether.
The contract with paramedics represented by MAHCP expired in 2018, and collective bargaining for a new agreement is expected to start in the fall. The union intends to raise these issues with the provincial government.
Besides increasing strain on paramedics, the shortages are putting patients at great risk, Moroz said.
“The longer it takes for our medics to be able to respond to that emergency, the worse that the outcome could be.”
Moroz says the region needs to immediately commence hiring paramedics.
Health-care workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which is currently in negotiations with the region, recently voted 97% in favor of a strike.
Rural paramedics could make a similar vote unless solutions can be found, Moroz added.
“We have to go to the table in good faith, but we don’t know how they’re going to treat us,” he said.
The MAHCP represents more than 6,500 members across Manitoba, including 800 rural paramedics.