What’s next for England’s ambulance services?

Adobe Spark (7)Details of the delivery of new ambulance standards were outlined by the National Clinical Director for Urgent Care at the Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester (NHS England, 2017a). Professor Jonathan Benger provided delegates with an overview of the Ambulance Response Programme, which he called: ‘the way we should do change in the NHS—change that is evidence based from the very beginning.’

Outlining the programme

The implementation of the Ambulance Response Programme was announced by NHS England (2017b) in July, following recommendations by the NHS England National Medical Director, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, to the Health Secretary (Keogh, 2017). It consists of three initiatives that were developed to try and improve clinical responses for patients.

Phase 1 involved changes to the triage of calls to allow more time for call handlers in cases that are not deemed as immediately life-threatening. This has been referred to as dispatch on disposition. Traditionally, handlers had up to 60 seconds to assess calls and establish the urgency of the problem, and the type of response required. It is at this point that the clock is started for the performance measurement. The subsequent issue was that in an effort to meet an 8-minute response standard, ambulance services were sending multiple vehicles to the same patient and standing down the vehicles they thought wouldn’t get there first. Response cars would frequently be used as a way of ‘stopping the clock’ but then the patient would have a long wait for the transporting ambulance, which was detrimental to the patient but not measured on the system. According to Benger:

‘The problem created was one whereby a paramedic in a response car might spend their entire day just driving from one call to another but never actually reaching a patient.’

The Ambulance Response Programme therefore sought to provide a more clinically appropriate response by targeting the right resource to the right patient. For non-life-threatening calls, ambulance call handlers were given up to an additional 3 minutes to determine what was wrong with the patient and therefore decide an appropriate response.

Phase 2 involved the introduction of a new code set that has four key categories, rather than two, which better reflects the wide range of needs patients have when they dial 999. In the old system almost 50% of calls to ambulance services are classified as Red 1 or Red 2, requiring a response within 8 minutes. However, this does not accurately reflect the type and urgency of care needed by patients (Turner et al, 2017). Under the new system there will now be four revised call categories:

  • Category 1 is for life-threatening calls. These are for people needing treatment for life-threatening illnesses or injuries and will be responded to in an average of 7 minutes
  • Category 2 is for emergency calls. These are potentially serious conditions that may require rapid assessment, urgent on-scene intervention and/or urgent transport. These will be responded to in an average of 18 minutes
  • Category 3 is for urgent calls. These are non-life-threatening problems involving patients needing treatment to relieve suffering. Often they can be managed at the scene and 90% of these patients will be responded to within 120 minutes
  • Category 4 is for less urgent calls. These are for non-urgent problems requiring assessment either face-to-face or by telephone and 90% of these patients will be responded to within 180 minutes.

The final initiative involved a review of the current ambulance system, Ambulance Quality Indicators (AQI), and the development of a revised set of indicators linked to the revised call categories.

Evaluating the programme

A formal trial of Phase 1 began in October 2015 and a trial of the Phase 2 revised call categories began in three services in April 2016. An evaluation of Phases 1 and 2 was published by researchers at Sheffield University (Turner et al, 2017). Benger said:

‘We are very fortunate in the Ambulance Response Programme to have very good stakeholder engagement and excellent independent academic scrutiny from Sheffield University.

‘They have analysed the data we’ve collected from more than 14 million 999 calls. Of those 14 million patients, no patient came to harm as a result of the Ambulance Response Programme.’

The review revealed that under the new dispatch on disposition system, early recognition of life-threatening conditions, such as cardiac arrest, will increase. The knock-on effect is up to an additional 250 lives saved each year. By sending an appropriate response, more vehicles will be freed up to attend emergencies, and patients will be conveyed to the appropriate place.

According to Benger, when call handlers were given more time, rather than impeding or reducing the speed of response for the sickest patients, speed and performance actually improved.

‘The ambulance services became a lot more efficient,’ said Benger. ‘Taking the entirety of both dispatch on disposition and the new coding set together, we were releasing 15 000–16 000 additional resources each week that could respond to a 999 call, when that was not previously the case. And that’s principally from putting an end to duplicate responses.’

Evaluation of Phase 2 on its own, however, is more complicated. The use of time-based standards as a key performance measure have been used by ambulance services throughout the world, despite a lack of evidence that they actually lead to good clinical care. As Phase 2 has only been operational for a short period of time, it is not possible to say whether the new model is better, only that it is ‘different’ (Turner et al, 2017). However, the three services reviewed indicated a period of operational stability during a period of high demand, even when response time performance continued to deteriorate in services operating the current national model.

It is thought that the more flexible approach to call assessment, resource dispatch, and response intervals brought on by the combination of dispatch on disposition and the
new code set, may reduce further deterioration in performance and maintain a consistent service. However, as highlighted by the researchers at Sheffield University, a system of ongoing review and refinement is needed to optimise delivery (Turner et al, 2017).

Implementing the programme

All ambulance services are now using dispatch on disposition, and the new call categories are intended to be fully implemented by winter 2017. This will hopefully reduce pressures on A&Es during their busiest time period.

‘We wanted to make ambulance services as efficient as they could be but that we didn’t lose sight of some of the core aims: prioritising the sickest patients, making
sure we incentivise clinically and operationally efficient behaviours, and trying to reduce the long waits for patients,’ said Benger.

‘When I first started in my job, I noticed that when you gathered ambulance chief executives together in a room, they would spend about 90% of the time talking about ambulance response times and 10% about clinical outcomes. I’d like to reverse that.’

As demand for urgent and emergency care sees year-on-year increases, services have to adapt to reduce pressure and ensure patients are able to get the care they need. It is hoped the new ambulance standards will go some way to making this a reality.

References

Keogh B. Ambulance Response Programme—letter to Secretary of State [Internet]. Leeds: NHS England; 2017. Available from http://tinyurl.com/ybfgxmfx

NHS England. What next for England’s ambulance services? Leeds: NHS England; 2017a. Available from http://tinyurl.com/yb7vzk8g

NHS England. New ambulance standards announced. Leeds: NHS England; 2017b. Available from http://tinyurl.com/yc6ywmqs

Turner J, Jacques R, Crum A, Coster J, Stone T, Nicholl J. Ambulance Response Programme: Evaluation of Phase 1 and Phase 2. Final Report. Sheffield: School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield; 2017.

Taken from Journal of Paramedic Practice, published October 2017.

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