The UK Ambulance Service: a state of emergency?

The UK Ambulance Service a state of emergency

It is a popular perception that Ambulance Services are over-stretched organisations, struggling to meet time targets as they endeavour to respond as promptly as possible to 999 calls.

Yet, last December the government announced that it was scrapping the 19-minute target for attending non-life threatening 999 calls within 19 minutes.

And earlier this month (10th June 2011) new figures suggest that London Ambulance’s service is wasting taxpayers’ money by dispatching too many vehicles to some call-outs.  

The ambulance journey and the level of care offered on the way can be as important as the treatment they receive when the hospital doors open.

Claims Direct can help people receive the compensation they need and deserve if incompetent health care or a lack of judgement has caused unnecessary pain or injury.

So how good is the ambulance service at responding quickly to 999 calls and providing quality health care?

London Call-Outs

New figures from the National Audit Office reveal that more than one ambulance was sent out in 61 per cent of call-outs in London in 2009-2010. 

The national average is 49 per cent.

It is thought that the old time targets were the reason for the unnecessary multiple responses – responses which the National Audit Office criticised for leading to spare ambulances being “stood down”.

London Ambulance chief Peter Bradley acknowledges that greater efficiency could be achieved by making better use of resources. But he does point out that “we will always need to send more than one ambulance crew to the most serious calls”.

The National Audit Office survey also found that:

•The cost per call-out varies between £176 to £251

•Over one in five handovers between ambulance staff and A&E units admitting patients take longer than the recommended 15 minutes. 

Recommendations for improving the ambulance service

The report recommends that different ways of responding to patients 999 calls should be encouraged and that sending an ambulance is not always appropriate. 

Giving clinical advice to callers over the phones, the NAO believes, is often a preferable alternative to sending an ambulance.

The NAO also advocates greater use of the option of taking ambulance patients to minor injuries units rather than A&E departments.

These measures, the organisation believes, will avoid the unwanted scenario of ambulances queuing outside A&E departments while medical staff struggle to meet the 15-minute handover target. 

‘One of the most demanding in the world’

It is easy to forget that ambulance crews and 999 calls deserve much credit for acting calmly and professionally while racing against the clock to give patients’ life-saving care.

The report acknowledges that the existing eight-minute target for the most seriously ill patients (for instance those who suffer heart attacks and strokes) is “one of the most demanding in the world”. 

Does the altering of the 19-minute target mean that the end of the eight-minute target is in sight?

Speed of response or outcome?

As many commentators have pointed out; the problem with the response time target is this: if an ambulance crew attends a serious call-out within seven minutes and the patient dies they have successfully met their time target.

If they get there within nine minutes and their treatment saves the patient’s life then they have failed since the time target hasn’t been met.

It is a scenario which begs the question: is a time target really more important than the outcome?