Paramedics are waiting longer than ever to off-load patients at city hospital emergency rooms, despite a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority effort to bring waits down.
Average ambulance patient off-load waits soared to a record 83.3 minutes in January. For the first three months of 2014, the average patient transfer time was 81.5 minutes -- far higher than any quarter since the WRHA started publishing such statistics in late 2010.
The extra-long waits occurred despite a spate of government and regional health authority initiatives in recent years to improve hospital patient flows.
The health authority blamed a harsh winter, a bad winter flu season, an aging population and increased numbers of patients with chronic diseases for the increased ambulance waits.
But the Opposition Conservatives, which acquired the latest numbers through freedom of information legislation, described the off-load waits as "unacceptable."
Tory health critic Myrna Driedger (Charleswood) said the 23-per-cent increase in ambulance off-load times since 2011 is "going to put families at risk" since paramedics are tied up longer and longer at hospitals and not on the road.
In 2013, there were 38 hours in Winnipeg, made up of a few minutes here and there, when there were no ambulances on the street, said the WRHA.
The WRHA must pay the city a late fee any time an ambulance waits longer than 60 minutes at a hospital. The patients don't necessarily wait in the ambulance but are attended to by paramedics in the emergency-room area until they can be transferred.
Driedger laid the blame for the worsening wait times at the feet of the new health minister, Erin Selby, who took over the portfolio last fall.
"Since Minister Selby has come, we have actually seen a dramatic worsening of the numbers," Driedger said. "Unfortunately I don't see that this minister has a very good handle on health issues."
Selby rejected the notion the longer wait times are threatening patient safety, noting more ambulances have been added to the system.
"We have some of the fastest (ambulance) response times in the country," she said.
Arlene Wilgosh, president and CEO of the WRHA, said winter months are generally more difficult for emergency rooms because there are more sick patients to care for.
"We see increased admission rates. This winter was particularly hard," she said, noting the health system also had to contend with a 15-day closure of the St. Boniface hospital operating rooms due to broken pipes. That had a ripple effect throughout the hospital system, she said.
According to WRHA data, the winter months aren't always the worst for long ambulance off-load waits.
During the first three months of both 2011 and 2012, ambulances waited less on average to off-load patients in Winnipeg than they did during the entire year in each of those years. The shortest average wait in 2012 occurred in the month of January -- 69.5 minutes, compared with 74.6 minutes for the entire year.
Chris Broughton, president of the Paramedics of Winnipeg Local 911, said his union has offered several solutions to the ambulance off-load problem, some of which are being implemented.
He said many people who are transported to hospital by ambulance do not have grave illnesses or injuries.
Recently, paramedics were given the discretion to bring such patients to an urgent care facility, such as Misericordia Hospital, Broughton said.
If paramedics also had the discretion to take patients to other clinics, such as Quick Care clinics operated by nurse practitioners, the hospital waits would fall, he said.