Ottawa paramedics are applying for permission to use taxis for non-emergency needs

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Paramedics in Ottawa are seeking approval from the province for a new program that would take some patients with non-urgent problems to hospital by taxi in an effort to ease the overwhelming demands on emergency responders.

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In the first nine months of this year, the Ottawa Paramedic Service recorded 1,088 level zero cases – when ambulances were not available – lasting a total of 32,697 minutes, a report from the service said.

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A major cause of this is discharge delays, which is the amount of time emergency room paramedics spend waiting to release a patient to hospital care. According to their report, paramedics spent 72,784 hours on discharge delays in Ottawa hospitals from January to September of this year.

Ottawa paramedics now plan to launch a pilot project on November 1 to send non-urgent patients to hospital or another destination such as a family doctor’s office to free up more ambulances.

“It doesn’t solve the problem, but it provides some relief and helps us reach the next patient who may need treatment,” Chief Pierre Poirier said in an interview.

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The application for the permit was submitted to the Ministry of Health a year ago and the service hopes to receive a response soon, Poirier said.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the proposal was under review and had not yet been approved.

“The Department of Health’s priority in considering all unsolicited proposals to update patient care models is to ensure that the proposed changes maintain patient safety,” Hannah Jensen wrote in a statement.

The planned program would initially start with 40 specially trained paramedics and increase to 140 by the end of the year, the service said.

These paramedics would arrive on scene and conduct an assessment that may also include social determinants of health, such as the condition of a person’s home or whether they have nursing support, Poirier said. The paramedic would then consult a doctor by phone if he felt a taxi was appropriate, such as for a patient with a twisted ankle or insomnia that was causing anxiety, he said.

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Every patient transported by taxi who entered the health facility itself received a follow-up call from paramedics within 24 hours.

Niagara Emergency Medical Services rolled out a similar pilot last year, and in an update five months after the project began, it said the taxi service had been used 106 times.

“In addition to maintaining ambulance capacity, five of these trips redirected patients from (emergency rooms) to more appropriate health care settings, such as walk-in clinics,” the service wrote in its update.

Patients’ most common concerns included back pain, general anxiety and symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection, the service said.

It would also save money, they said, since the average cost of a taxi ride is between $15 and $20, while Niagara EMS’s operating costs per patient are about $1,000.

Poirier said Ottawa paramedics are working on a contract with a taxi service for their pilot project.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2023.

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