The NWT government has begun hiring paramedics to increase staffing levels at health centers.
The initiative is “part of a solution” to addressing shortages of nurses across the territory, says the program’s leader.
Sean Ivens is President and CEO of Advanced Medical Solutions, a company that recruits, trains and deploys paramedics for the territory’s health department.
Ivens recently spoke to CBC News during a training session at their Yellowknife headquarters, where their second cohort was in the middle of their required orientation program.
The six-day training course includes skills development, recertification and “cultural education” to ensure paramedics are prepared and qualified to work in the area, Ivens said, adding that there is an online educational component.
Nova Scotia’s Jonathan Mackay was one of five other paramedics in the training session. Mackay said he has worked as a paramedic for over 23 years, often in remote communities.
He said he was “thrown” into his last paramedic position in Papua New Guinea and was grateful for Advanced Medical Solutions’ nearly week-long orientation.
“I’ve never had so much preparatory training and it looks like the program is being built well, so I’m really excited to be a part of it at this point,” said Mackay.
Jarrett Baxter, also from Nova Scotia, said he has worked on an ambulance for 18 years and is looking forward to working in a clinic.
“It’s always been a goal to be more community-focused as a paramedic because it’s not that traditional role that we’re used to,” he said.
Paramedics are “cross-trained” and have “assistance and support.”
Ivens said there are no plans for paramedics to replace nurses, but to work with them – mainly in an emergency role.
“Whereas a nurse has a clinical background and is more focused on clinical emergencies, the paramedic is trained to work in an uncontrolled environment – where someone is bleeding, not breathing, [or] requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation,” said Ivens.
“So when you bring those two skills together, they work very well together because now you have a complete skill set.”
But to keep health centers open, paramedics will likely work in communities where nurses aren’t present. Ivens said this could result in reduced benefits, but a doctor and several clinical managers will be available 24/7 to provide telephone advice and resolve issues.
“It gives us backing and support in case it’s a situation that the paramedic can’t handle on their own.”
Though there are “limitations” to the model, Ivens says paramedics are “cross-trained” to work in clinical settings during the orientation program.
“If someone comes from a community and says my ear hurts, my stomach hurts, my throat hurts — that’s not usually what you would describe a paramedic in an ambulance for. So we’re giving him those extra skills,” he said.
“It’s not some kind of cowboy environment where a paramedic comes in, rolls up his sleeves and goes to work. It’s a very controlled environment,” he replied when asked about possible concerns people might have with paramedics filling in for nurses.
He added that paramedics will be placed in “appropriate environments” based on their skill level.
According to Ivens, three paramedics from her first cohort have recently started work at health centers — two in Hay River and one in Yellowknife. He said they are currently working with the health department to schedule paramedics at Fort Providence and Inuvik.
“Within the next four weeks we will have 24 paramedics deployed in the Northwest Territories,” Ivens said.
Paramedics are “here to stay,” says Ivens
Ivens believes this method of healthcare is “here to stay across Canada, if not the world.”
He said the southern regions of Canada, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, have been turning to the community’s paramedics for years to help with the “health crisis” due to staff shortages.
And while the program is still in the development phase at NWT, Advanced Medical Solutions has been successfully running the initiative in Nunavut since July 2021, Ivens says.
“We’ve helped mitigate some of the closures of community health centers across Nunavut.”
He hopes that the program will be further expanded in the north. “This is new in the field and I’m sure it will continue to evolve,” said Ivens.