At the front of the front-line: Ontario paramedics' experiences of occupational safety, risk and communication during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic
International Journal of Emergency Services
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The study aimed to (1) determine on what bases paramedics in this context have defined themselves as feeling safe or at risk while serving on the front lines and (2) develop recommendations to support paramedics in their critical public health emergency response role.
This qualitative study consisted of 21 semi-structured interviews with primary care paramedics (PCPs), advanced care paramedics (ACPs) and critical care paramedics (CCPs) with first-hand experience responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario. Qualitative research is best suited to the research objectives of gaining detailed and nuanced understandings of paramedics' experiences during this public health emergency, and identifying in paramedics' accounts what changes to policy and practice might strengthen their sense of safety in future infectious disease outbreaks (Bowling, 2002; Chafe, 2017). Data collection occurred over the course of 3.5 months, from June 2020 until September 2020.
Participants described several factors that heightened their feeling exposed to risk particular to working on the front lines of the COVID-19 public health response. These factors include stress connected to personal protective equipment (PPE) and equipment access, risks of infection to self and family, communications and feelings of being systematically under-considered. Recommendations from this research include, but are not limited to, ensuring a more equitable distribution of protective equipment to paramedics across unevenly funded services, and recognizing paramedics face unique and additional stressors in public health emergencies.
A key limitation of this study was the relatively small sample, with 50% of potential participants deciding not to engage in an interview. The authors suspect this is likely a result of timing, as this was conducting during significant periods of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario. The study identifies and begins to shed light on the way in which feelings of compromised safety and specific stressors in a public health emergency context connect to one another and potentially increase risks of burnout for this healthcare provider group. This study's documentation of paramedics feeling uncertainty about their own and their family's safety, combined with feeling occupational pressure, decisional pressure within constrained frameworks of care delivery, a lack of autonomy and a lack of consideration within their healthcare system in general and within its pandemic response in particular, is important in and of itself. These stressors can have serious implications for the ability of paramedics to sustain their integral role in public health emergency response.
A series of pandemic-specific and generalizable recommendations emerged from this research and in collaboration with community-based medical leadership. (1) Consult paramedics on effectiveness of screening questions and equipment. Be sure to illicit and respond to paramedic feedback in a timely manner. (2) Implement operational changes during pandemics in the form of donning and doffing stations, disposable gowns, decontamination teams at hospitals, infectious disease paramedic (IDP) truck, anti-fog sprays for goggles, and safe and controlled areas for eating and taking breaks. (3) Develop an emergency pandemic plan that is resourced and maintained as part of EMS strategic planning. Involve EMS in decisions related to health system emergency planning and sustainability of EMS practice. (4) Establish equitable distribution of resources, such as ensuring PPE is distributed equitably and applying pandemic pay equally to all essential workers. (5) Validate and respect EMS, as they are essential workers. Recognize the expertise of paramedics and community healthcare providers. Finally, an overarching recommendation at the core of this research is the consideration for paramedic knowledge as expertise given their role as critical front line healthcare specialists and the protection of this crucial human resource as it relates to their resilience and mental wellbeing.
Evidence-based awareness and improved understanding of paramedic stress during the pandemic is a first step to developing strategies to reduce that stress. This is essential in ensuring access to this essential service during emergencies and the safety of the communities they serve.