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Inter-facility patient transfers in Ontario: Do you know what your local ambulance is being used for?


Background — Little is known about inter-facility patient transfers in populations. In 2003, detailed information about inter-facility patient transfers began to be systematically collected in Ontario.

Methodology — The authors undertook a descriptive examination of inter-facility patient transfers using a newly created population-based information system.

Results — Approximately 1,000 inter-facility patient transfers occur in Ontario each day, and every day and a half, the total distance travelled for these transfers equals the distance around the earth's circumference. The annual cost for patient transfers is approximately $283 million. Most common were routine and non-urgent inter-facility patient transfers. Eighty-five thousand patients (24.3% of transferred patients) were transported between healthcare facilities for dialysis appointments, appointments with physicians and return trips home. Patients with circulatory conditions were the most commonly transferred diagnostic group. Although 70% of all transfers were within 25 kilometres, some were for longer distances: for example, those involving pregnant women and newborn babies required travelling a median distance of 40.3 kilometres for continued care. Cardiac patients (54,000 patient transfers per year) travelled a median of 24.2 kilometres to reach a catheterization lab for treatment and further investigation. There was considerable lateral movement between academic health sciences centres (AHSCs). Over 16,000 patients per year (4.7% of all transfers) were transferred from one AHSC to another, predominantly for cardiac care.

Discussion — Patients in Ontario are often transferred between healthcare facilities. Most transfers are for routine, non-life-threatening reasons, using the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system. This practice diverts resources from more emergent requests. Although patient transportation is a necessary part of any healthcare system, the results of this study highlight the current demands on a system that was not intended for the volume of inter-facility patient transfers it is supporting. These results call into question the use of sophisticated, highly trained, expensive patient transfer resources to provide routine medical services in Ontario.



Robinson V, Goel V, Macdonald RD, Manuel D. Healthc Policy. 2009; 4(3): 53-66.

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Contributing ICES Scientists