999 won't always get an ambulance

By Rebecca Sheppard and Jonathan BarnesAMBULANCES will not be sent to 999 calls in East Anglia that are considered to be too trivial as bosses tackle the service's growing workload.

By Rebecca Sheppard and Jonathan Barnes

AMBULANCES will not be sent to 999 calls in East Anglia that are considered to be too trivial as bosses tackle the service's growing workload.

The East Anglian Ambulance Trust is hiring specially-trained nurses to deal with calls deemed not serious enough to send ambulance crews.

An ambulance is currently sent to every emergency call, but trust bosses are attempting to introduce a system with “more appropriate” responses to minor conditions.

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The scheme - the first of its kind in the country - will begin in the spring. Patients who are turned down for an ambulance will be transferred to a nurse, who will give medical advice over the telephone.

London Ambulance Service announced a plan to “screen” 999 calls at the end of last year, but the East Anglian Ambulance Trust is thought to be the first to appoint a nurse to deal with calls.

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Craig Cooke, distribution manager for the trust, said the move would help deal with the increasing number of 999 calls.

“It clearly doesn't make any sense to be racing to every single emergency call on blue lights and sirens, with all the attendant hazards that involves, when a nurse who is an expert in advising on health problems can be on hand to advise the caller,” he added.

“It is also sometimes not in the best interests of the patient to send an ambulance out to them.

“In rural areas they will often face a 20 to 30-minute journey to hospital, followed by a wait in an accident and emergency department, when their condition could have been treated more appropriately in the primary care setting.

“This type of situation is clearly better for the patient and better for the health service.”

Emergency call-outs have increased by almost 12% so far this financial year and more than doubled in the past seven years.

Mr Cooke stressed the ambulance trust was not trying to discourage people from ringing 999.

“We recognise that the vast majority of callers believe they have a genuine medical need when they ring us,” he added.

“But what we can do better is provide the correct response to their call rather than a blanket ambulance response.”

Tim Yeo, shadow health secretary and the Conservative MP for South Suffolk, warned the scheme needed careful monitoring.

“I share the concern that some 999 calls are from people who are not in life-threatening emergencies and that could be harmful to those who are in life-threatening situations,” he said.

“But any screening of 999 calls should be conducted on a trial basis. If there is any delay answering genuine calls, we need to think very carefully if this is a good idea.

“What we can't have is a judgment made over the phone which turns out to be a mistake and someone not getting an ambulance in time.

“There are always journeys which are not justified, but that is the price you pay for having a comprehensive medical service.”

The nurse, who will be based in the ambulance emergency control centre, will be able to give advice, including self-help remedies, as well as information about getting help from alternative healthcare providers such as NHS walk-in centres, pharmacies and GP surgeries.

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