In April 2011, Heinrichs was rushed to the Regina General Hospital with signs of heart failure. At one point she was told she was to stay in the hospital for one day for a test, but it turned into a 10-day stay. On top of that, her husband had to leave to pack up their house because they were in the process of downsizing into a small apartment.
“It was something so unexpected and it didn’t work out too well because then (Ron) had to go back,” said Heinrichs. “But luckily for us, it’s not as bad as it is for some people because we have family here so we can always stay with them if somebody needs to.”
The vast distances in the province create challenges for EMS services, said Doug Line, the director in the acute and emergency services branch of the provincial health ministry. The branch is responsible for EMS, cancer agency and provincial quality of care co-ordinators.
“When you have a relatively low population density spread out over a long distance, it becomes much more of a challenge in order to provide emergency services,” said Line. “You’re attempting to have people trained, prepared and ready to respond to a call, but oftentimes it’s not always something that there’s always a close proximity to where they are.”
Line said paramedics have to travel many kilometres to respond to a call, pick up patients and transport them to a medical facility. Particularly in northern Saskatchewan where there are small communities spread out across far distances, it makes it difficult to provide service. He added the ministry’s goal in Saskatchewan is to respond to a rural emergency in less than 30 minutes. That goal is achieved about 83 per cent of the time.
“Of course you’d like to have a target of 100 per cent, but we think that given the geographical distances that 83 per cent indicates that we have some very good service providers out there who work very hard at making sure that they can respond as quickly as possible,” said Line.
There are 108 ambulance services in Saskatchewan and the majority of calls are done by the Regina and Saskatoon services. Out of those 108 services, 61 have an average of one call per service per day. Of those 61, an average of 10 would do less than one call per week. In Regina and Saskatoon, ambulance services each receive 65 calls per day.
“Some of our services out in the rural area don’t get a large volume of ambulance calls. So essentially you’re not always able to have people who are full time ambulance personnel,” said Line. “I have a lot of respect for their dedication because they do a lot of study, a lot of training and they’re working at their regular jobs and a call comes in that ambulance attendants are needed and they go out there and respond.”
Many things have been done in the province to try to overcome these rural challenges. He said 9-1-1 services are available for almost all areas of the province and more paramedics are being trained every year. Three ambulance dispatch centres were put into place with full-time ambulance dispatchers who can provide medical information over the phone in an emergency. If someone was having a heart attack or a baby was being delivered at home, for example, Line said dispatchers could provide information to help with the situation while the ambulance was on its way.
More recently, Line said the Cypress Health Region is running a pilot program in Eastend to develop a “mobile health system.” Paramedics would provide ambulance care and additional health services in the area and supply a full-time job to someone in that field. He said the provincial government is watching the project with great interest.
“(The pilot project is) to sort of see how you would integrate the skills of a paramedic into some of the local services that might be needed in the community related to home care or working in a heath care centre or clinic,” said Line. “It may be an opportunity in the next year or so to try in other locations and see if there’s a way to enhance the level of service in some of the smaller communities.”
“It would be nice if the smaller centres like Swift Current had more specialized services. There virtually aren’t any,” said Heinrichs. “Any time you run into something where you need a specialist, well of course, you have to go into a larger centre like Regina and then the wait lists get to be really long and that’s a problem, especially with some illnesses.”
Wait times, however, haven’t been a problem in Heinrichs’ experience and she has had to wait at most half a day to get in. Basic and emergency needs, such as filling her prescriptions, have never been an issue, but occasionally she’s had appointments rescheduled or cancelled, which is inconvenient for someone living out of town.
Although Heinrichs can’t complain too much based on her situation, she added the slowest part of the health services is getting the test results. With her heart condition, she has to have a lot of tests done. The results are also supposed to be sent to her doctor in Swift Current, but Heinrichs said “sometimes she gets them and sometimes she doesn’t.”
For instance, she had an MRI done in October and was told she’d get the results by the time she saw her Swift Current doctor in November. As of early February, she still didn’t have the results.
“There’s no reason for that,” said Heinrichs. “That’s not performance, really.”