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Opioid crisis puts pressure on paramedics

A new study has found the opioid crisis is putting more pressure on paramedics and emergency rooms. It’s also influencing the way paramedics work and the way paramedic students are taught at Durham College.

The study out of McMaster University, published in September in the journal PLOS ONE, found the number of people overdosing and taken to hospital by ambulance has doubled over the past decade.

The study shows more than eight people a day die from opioid overdoses. The study’s lead author, Ryan Strum, says despite health interventions these rates continue to rise.

This study suggests there are several factors for the increase, such as fentanyl-laced drugs, and a significant increase in prescriptive opioids. Strum says this has caused an uptick in hospital visits and admissions, as well as paramedic calls and transports.

Dale Button is the program coordinator in the Paramedic and Advanced Paramedic programs at Durham College and a practising paramedic. He says the way aspiring paramedics are taught has changed over the years.

“Part of our teaching involves the social climate of what we are seeing in opioid response,” he says. “In terms of the weighting we give it in our curriculum, it certainly has increased over the years because we’re seeing it so often.”

Button has been a certified paramedic for the last 12 years and has personally seen the increase in opioid overdoses.

“Opioid overdose calls were rare when I first started and now it is a common call,” he says.

There are mental health supports in place for working paramedics and students who experience these calls.

At Durham College, students vote for peer supporters who are dedicated to helping and talking to students if they are struggling. In the field, there are also support groups and counselling.

Meanwhile, some social service agencies are putting measures in place to reduce the pressure on paramedics.

Nathan Gardner is executive director of the Back Door Mission located in the Simcoe Street United Church in Oshawa.

He has seen a number of opioid overdoses but has helped put risk mitigators in place to try to reduce the number of overdoses staff see.

Gardner says they do bag checks before someone enters the building. As well, there is an onsite security team.

A “shining example” of the mission, Gardner says, is the onsite medical team available Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. This team consists of nurse practitioners, doctors, and an addiction physician. The medical team can perform everything a paramedic can which helps limit call times.

“Once a week, maybe more, EMS was being called to the Back Door Mission when I first started a couple years ago,” Gardner says. Today, it’s “a lot less.”

The Primary Care Outreach Program is another program at the Back Door Mission, run by the Region of Durham. It includes a social worker and a paramedic. They come to the mission every morning, and check in throughout the day based on their schedules.

“They are grounded through the mission, so they are here and available quite often,” Gardner says.

He says more social service agencies should have onsite medical teams to help paramedics.

Button also says there needs to be more support.

“There is a lot of stigmas around narcotic use and opioid users,” he says. “A lot of the challenge is we probably need additional social supports before people end up in position where opioids are a choice.”

Strum says he chose to focus on the opioid crisis because of the overwhelming number of overdose calls and the use and impact they have on the healthcare system.

“Our study calls attention to the critical need for comprehensive, evidence-based prevention and treatment programs,” he said in an email.