Ambulance service at creaking point

Adobe SparkRecent figures published by NHS England reveal the ambulance service is continuing to fail to meet Government standards for responding to Category A (Red 1 and Red 2) calls. The figures for March 2016 showed only 66.5% of Red 1 calls were responded to within 8 minutes, while 72.3% of Red 2 calls received a response within the same timeframe (NHS England, 2016). This is compared to 73.4% and 69.6%, respectively for the same period in 2015. It marks 10 months that services in England as a whole have failed to meet the Government target of 75% for Red 1 Calls. The response to Red 2 calls is the lowest proportion recorded since the data collection began in June 2012. However, it must be highlighted that Red 2 data from February 2015 onwards are not completely comparable across England due to the introduction of Dispatch on Disposition, allowing up to two additional minutes for triage to identify the clinical situation and take appropriate action.

It has been a tough year for ambulance services, with London Ambulance Service NHS Trust being placed under special measures by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in November 2015 and East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust being recently rated inadequate by the CQC for safety due to insufficient staff numbers and a consensus that the skill mix of staff deployed was not always safe (CQC, 2016).

The fact of the matter is that demand for ambulance services continues to rise and services are struggling to keep up. The ambulance service in England received 861 853 phone calls in March 2016, compared to 694 188 in March 2015 (NHS England, 2015; 2016), a rise of 24%. However, Trusts have not been able to increase their numbers of staff to meet this demand. This creates greater work pressures and stress for existing employees, brought on by longer working hours and missed meal breaks. The result? High staff attrition within Trusts. Those that remain will no doubt be questioning whether this is sustainable. With staff currently being balloted by unions over industrial action on pay, the possibility of a crisis within the ambulance service cannot be dismissed as hearsay.

If this is to be avoided, a number of things have to change. Trusts must ensure front-line vacancies are filled and staff do not leave. This can only be done by fostering a work environment in which staff are happy to remain. The over triage of patients must be minimised so that appropriate resources are dispatched. And, where possible, patients’ needs must be addressed at the point of contact and unnecessary transfers to hospital must be avoided. If the ambulance service carries on as it is, it is difficult to see how it will continue to operate in 10 years’ time. By focusing on employee welfare, this crisis may be averted.

References

Care Quality Commission (2015) London Ambulance Service NHS Trust Quality Report, 27 November 2015. http://tinyurl.com/hxdhwpr (accessed 26 May 2016)

Care Quality Commission (2016) East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust Quality Report, 10 May 2016. http://tinyurl.com/h5r4wfv (accessed 26 May 2016)

NHS England (2015) Ambulance Quality Indicators Data 2014–15. http://tinyurl.com/zf2p5jf (accessed 26 May 2016)

NHS England (2016) Ambulance Quality Indicators Data 2015–16. http://tinyurl.com/jyls6rt (accessed 26 May 2016)

Taken from Journal of Paramedic Practice, published 27 May 2016.

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