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New ambulance call system aims to prioritise sickest patients

Government hopes to cut out half a million wasted journeys every year

Caroline White

Thursday, 17 May 2012

From next month, ambulance staff will be given up to 60 seconds longer to get more information from serious but not critical calls in a bid to ensure that a more appropriate response vehicle gets to the patient.

People taking the calls will be asking for vital additional information such as whether the patient is breathing and has a pulse as well as more detail on what has happened to them and their symptoms.

Two trials of the extended call time in London and the West Midlands, which took over 22,000 calls, showed that those in critical need were reached at least 40 seconds faster, and that cancelled calls fell by at least 24%.

If replicated elsewhere, this would cut out at least 650,000 wasted ambulance journeys across England, says the Department of Health.

On average, over 20 per cent of vehicles currently dispatched are cancelled on route before reaching the scene, wasting vital resources which could be used for other patients.

From 1 June 2012, a new classification system will also come on stream. Category A cases will be split into Red 1 and Red 2 calls:

  • Red 1 calls are patients having a heart attack, or who are unconscious, or who have stopped breathing.
  • Red 2 calls are serious cases, but not ones where up to 60 additional seconds will affect the outcome—diabetic episodes and fits, for example.

If those taking the call have not got all the information they need in 60 seconds, the clock will start counting down the 8 minute target for reaching critically ill patients.  

As part of the changes, ambulance trusts will now be expected to get to 80 per cent of critically ill patients within this time frame by April 2013 rather than the current target of 75 per cent.

And they will be required to publish how long it takes them to reach 95 per cent of all their patients from June 2012 to encourage them to reduce the numbers of people who wait the longest, particularly in rural areas.

Matthew Cooke, National Clinical Director for Urgent and Emergency Care and a consultant in emergency medicine, said: “We want to make sure that everyone who needs emergency medical assistance gets it. These changes will make sure that the right support is sent to the right place and reaches patients fast.”

He added: “Fewer ambulances will need to be stood down when they are half way to a patient who doesn’t need them – meaning that they will be available for a patient who does, increasing the chances of survival for anyone who is not breathing or is suffering a cardiac arrest.

People whose heart has stopped will get a faster response, meaning they can have life saving treatment like defibrillation on average 40 seconds quicker, increasing their chances of survival by about 7 per cent.”

Peter Bradley, Chief Executive of London Ambulance Service and National Ambulance Director, said: “At the moment, too many ambulances or rapid response vehicles are sent out when they are not needed. This means that paramedics are sent out on a double dispatch, only to be cancelled when they are too far away to reach another urgent call.

Making this small change will mean more ambulances and rapid responders will be ready to go and help patients – rather than be stood down while on their way to somewhere they aren’t needed.”

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