Ottawa paramedics have started a new process this week that will enable them to take vulnerable homeless patients directly to the Shepherds of Good Hope instead of the hospital.

It's the first of its kind in Ontario and is expected to save the health care system millions of dollars.

When paramedics get a call about a homeless person drunk or high on drugs, they have been required to take that person to the hospital and wait with them, hours sometimes, until they are “off-loaded”.

But a pilot program that began yesterday will change that. It is a targeted population:  the chronically homeless, with severe addictions or mental health problems who often end up in the hospital.

Dr. Jeff Turnbull is chief of staff at the Ottawa Hospital and the medical director of Ottawa Inner City Health.

‘We were seeing individuals repeatedly coming to Emergency intoxicated,’ Dr. Turnbull says, ‘This would tie up an ambulance, two paramedics.  They would wait to off-load several hours. These individuals would sober up and we would release them into the community only to do this again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.’

Dr. Turnbull says rather than go to the hospital or to the police station, the paramedics will now bring these patients to a program in the basement of the Shepherds of Good Hope, ‘We had more than 5000 episodes of care. That's when individuals would otherwise been using ambulance or police services.  They get better care here and they are not tying up ambulance to go to the hospital or tying up time with police.  We know we can do a better job here and we save about $1.7 million dollars.  So, cost saving and better care.’

Paramedics say it will free up their time as well. 

‘Now we can divert patients who really don't need the emergency room into a clinic that will provide better short term and care for them,’ says J.P. Trottier with Ottawa Paramedic Services.

Donations from the Desjardins family helped pay for two new stretchers to properly off-load patients; the Champlain LHIN, the local health authority, provided money for round-the-clock nursing. 

It's all part of a 2-year-old program at Shepherds called "Targeted Engagement Diversion" or TED for short; a program that brings medical and mental health services together to help this vulnerable group of people.

‘We thought when we opened program (in 2013), we would have between 100 and 120 people a year using it, says Wendy Muckle, the executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health, ‘Last year, there were 864 people who used the program.’ 

The ultimate goal of all this is to get this vulnerable population well and off the streets.

Deirdre Freiheit is the CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope, ‘There have been quite a few success stories that clients have come through this program and are now successfully housed and that's the goal,’ says Freiheit, ‘because as we know, everyone deserves to have their own home.’

The program has garnered interest nationally and internationally.  Dr. Turnbull says the program is very new and they have just started releasing their results but he suspects they will be seeing more of these initiatives in other centres across this country.