More dialling 999 with minor illnesses

AMBULANCE crews are finding themselves placed under increasing pressure as the number of people with relatively minor problems calling 999 rockets.

Grant Sherlock

AMBULANCE crews are finding themselves placed under increasing pressure as the number of people with relatively minor problems calling 999 rockets.

New figures released by the East of England Ambulance Service today showed calls for an emergency ambulance response had dramatically increased in the past five years.

In June 2003, ambulance crews in the east of England responded to 35,145 emergency calls, but by last month that number had risen by more than 10,000 to 46,090, up more than 30 per cent, the service revealed.

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Rob Lawrence, chief locality officer for the ambulance service, said that while the number of people with serious problems had increased in line with an increasing and ageing population, the more significant rise was in people with more minor problems.

“We are seeing more and more people calling 999 who could get more appropriate treatment elsewhere in the NHS,” he said.

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“Were there really 10,000 more people in need of an emergency ambulance last month than the June of five years ago? We don't for one moment want to put off people with genuine emergencies from calling us, but with calls seemingly on a never-ending upward curve we need people to think about whether they really need an ambulance before making the call.

“This is particularly relevant over the summer, when the number of calls peaks during the type of hot weather forecast for this weekend.

“Our crews and responders are striving to meet the most challenging ambulance response times in the world, and we need the public on our side to help us reach those most in need of our help as quickly as possible.”

Extra investment in the ambulance service from the primary care trusts which commission the service across Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Norfolk has seen average response times reduced from eight minutes and 42 seconds in March to seven minutes and 28 seconds last month.

Since April 1 this year ambulance response times have been measured from the moment the 999 call is connected to control rooms in Bedford, Norwich and Chelmsford, as opposed to the previous system when the clock began to tick only after the patient's location and condition were known.

The trust is required to meet a target of reaching 75 per cent of potentially life threatening calls within eight minutes.

Mr Lawrence said: “Last month almost half of our patients did not need to be taken to hospital, indicating there is much scope for people to use other parts of the NHS for more minor problems.”

How you can avoid calling an ambulance:

The East of England Ambulance Service said options available if patients cannot treat themselves include calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647, or the local GP out-of-hours service (usually via your local GP surgery number).

Both of these telephone-based services will divert patients to 999 if an ambulance is required.

NHS walk-in centres, pharmacies and local minor injuries units can also help.

However it said people should not hesitate to ring 999 or visit A&E immediately for any of the following problems:

suspected heart attack

chest pains

if someone is unconscious

heavy blood loss

suspected broken bones

deep wounds or head injuries

difficulty breathing

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