On Sunday, a 9-1-1 call was made shortly before noon on behalf of an Ashcroft resident who had gone into cardiac arrest.
The nearest ambulance was in Clinton, and took 25 minutes to arrive. The Ashcroft emergency department — normally open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on a Sunday — was closed, due to limited physician availability.
A question that is being asked is “Has this happened before?” A more pertinent question is “Could this happen again?” The answer is, sadly, “Yes.”
Staffing levels are an issue everywhere and in every profession, but none moreso, it seems, than in health care. It’s not as if this situation happened overnight. For years there have been warnings about what would happen when the baby boomers began to hit retirement age around 2010–2015. Factor in advances in medical care that require more training, low pay and long hours, stress and a lack of respect, the pandemic, more people living longer and requiring more (and more complex) care than in the past, and a lack of training spaces, and we find ourselves wondering where all the health care workers went, and why no one seems to be rushing to take their place.
The ambulance service is in much the same boat, recruitment-wise, hindered for a long time by a model that saw many on-call paramedics paid only $2 (or nothing) an hour. That model is changing, and the BC Emergency Health Service has taken strides in streamlining the application and training process, but we are still left with a lack of people wanting to go into the profession, or relocate to rural communities.
When emergency departments are closed, the advice from the health authority is “Call 9-1-1.” So people do that, sometimes resulting in patients who could easily and safely be driven to hospital by a friend or family member occupying an ambulance, which is then not immediately available when a more acute call comes in.
It all adds up to a huge issue involving different professional bodies and many pieces to the puzzle. As with any huge issue, a certain inertia begins to creep in. The problem is so big, and seemingly so intractable, that no one seems willing or able to tackle any part of it.
But that is precisely what’s needed: for one piece of the puzzle to be thoroughly, properly, and immediately addressed. Fix one piece, and then move on to the next one, which should be a bit easier to deal with because that first piece has been sorted out. Then on to the next one, and the next one after that. It will never be perfect, or completely solved, because nothing ever is, but it will be better than it is now.
And stop putting this off because it is — or largely seems to be — a rural problem. If the emergency department at Surrey Memorial Hospital had to be closed for an entire weekend due to staff shortages, people would be falling all over themselves on Monday to assure people that steps would be taken to ensure it never happened again. They should be falling over themselves to ensure it never happens again in Ashcroft, or Clearwater, or any of the other rural communities that have been staring down staff shortages and closures for years, with nothing seeming to change.
Recruit more people, and make sure that recruiting is done in rural areas, not just the cities; you’re more likely to get rural health care workers and ambulance paramedics from people who are from those communities, not Surrey or Burnaby. Create more training spaces for them. Streamline the process where possible. Ensure that health care workers and paramedics are in a space where they are respected. Pay them a decent wage that acknowledges their training and the work they do.
Pick one piece of this puzzle, and start working on it, or the crisis we see playing out in Ashcroft, and Clearwater, and too many other places will continue. Start now. It’s not too late.