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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The need for optimism at a challenging time for the NHS emerges as key theme of Ambulance Leadership Forum

The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives’ (AACE) annual Ambulance Leadership Forum (ALF) took place this year on 9–10 February at the Hinckley Island Hotel in Leicestershire. Designed to stimulate debate and ideas about the on-going development of emergency and urgent care, delegates were encouraged to share best practice and discuss issues pertinent to the sector.

The theme for this year’s event focused around the future look and feel of ambulance service provision and was largely based on AACEs document published last year, A vision for the ambulance service: 2020 and beyond. This vision presents ambulance services as mobile healthcare providers operated in an extended range of care settings, doing more diagnostic work, more treatment, more health promotion, and providing patients with more services that before.

Delegates were welcomed to the conference by AACE chair and West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust CEO, Anthony Marsh, who called on attendees to embrace the new ambulance initiatives on offer and improve outcomes. He noted that ‘the challenge we are confronted with now [in the NHS] offers us a real opportunity,’ and hoped proceedings for the day would help influence national policy.

The landscape of urgent and emergency care: implementing the Five Year Forward View

The opening address was given by Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers, who asked whether the provider sector had the capacity to deliver the changes outlined in NHS England’s Five Year Forward View? Hopson said that all Trusts would be under pressure to achieve their financial targets in 2016–2017 and that one of the biggest debates would be over standards and performance, especially for ambulances. He highlighted that the majority of providers have found themselves in the ‘needs improvement’ box in terms of Care Quality Commission rating, and that we cannot fix many problems found in the NHS unless we have more vertical integration of health and care and horizontal collaboration.

Prof Keith Willett, national director for acute episodes of care for NHS England, then spoke on the new landscape for urgent and emergency care. He started by mentioning he sat on a sharp fence between the clinical world of service providers and Whitehall, and noted it is a sharp fence. The current provision of urgent and emergency care services sees 24 million calls to the NHS and 7 million emergency ambulance journeys a year. Willett said for those people with urgent but non-life threatening needs we must provide ‘highly responsive, effective and personalised services outside of hospital, and deliver care in or as close to people’s homes as possible.’ For those people with more serious or life-threatening emergency needs, he said: ‘We should ensure they are treated in centres with the very best expertise and facilities in order to maximise their chances of survival and a good recovery.’ As we move into the final phase of the Urgent and Emergency Care Review, the focus is on implementing new models of care and ways of working. He stressed that the ambulance service needs to come to the fore and drive change, and that no paramedic should make a decision in isolation, but should have support from whole of the NHS.

Transforming health and social care: innovation and leadership

Following the first coffee break of the day, Bob Williams, CEO of North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust, spoke on devolution in Manchester. After providing a background to the health and social care system in Greater Manchester and the Greater Manchester Devolution Agreement, Williams outlined the principles around the Greater Manchester devolution plan, which include: radical upgrade in population health prevention, transforming care in localities, standardising acute hospital care, and standardising clinical support and back office services. Williams said Greater Manchester devolution offers an opportunity to transform health and social care, and that ambulance service has the tools, the players and the crucial elements to help make the healthcare system changes needed.

Prof Paresh Wankhade of Edge Hill University then spoke on leadership in the emergency services, focusing on interoperability and innovation. Wankhade first set the scene by outlining the leadership challenges faced by emergency services, before highlighting the key issues impacting workforce development, the need for suitable leadership for empowering and motivating staff, provided a critical overview of the state of interoperability, and closed by speaking about innovation in an era of uncertainty. For the ambulance service, he noted an increasing demand but lesser proportion of life-threatening calls, and that performance and quality are unsustainable with current levels of funding. He went on to say that there is very little evidence to suggest that enough is being done to support the workforce for new challenges and performance pressures, and that there is an important role for the College of Paramedics to prepare practitioners for the future.

Leading in challenging times

After lunch, delegates heard a recorded message from Lord Prior of Brampton, parliamentary under secretary of state for NHS productivity, who commended the work that is being done by ambulance services across the country, and apologised on behalf of the secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt, who had to pull out the conference last minute.
This was followed by Rob Webster, CEO of NHS Confederation, who gave one of the most engaging talks of the day on leading in challenging times. He began by explaining there has been a 24% increase in activity for Category A calls for ambulance services since 2011. He went on to stress the need for values-based leadership and system leadership, and that leading should come from every seat in the NHS. If senior ambulance managers do not understand the organisation’s values, then it is difficult to expect staff to understand them. He closed by noting that the NHS is made of people, and that it is the collective commitment, drive and energy that make up an organisation, and what makes a successful future.

Janette Turner, director of the medical research unit at the University of Sheffield, then spoke on managing urgent care outside hospital. Looking at data from March 2015, 27.9–57.6% of 999 calls were not conveyed to emergency departments in England. On population utilisation of emergency ambulance services the UK receives 13 calls per 100 population, compared to Belgium, which has the highest number of calls per population in Europe at 33. Turner said that outcomes of evidence on telephone-based service involved accuracy, compliance, satisfaction, costs, service impact and access. While accuracy is high for minimising risk, inaccuracy tends to come in the form of over triage. Considering the role of management by ambulance clinicians outside hospital, Turner said a small number of high-quality studies support extended paramedic roles as they offer safe decisions, reduced emergency department transports, high satisfaction and are cost effective. However, she did note that decision-making is complex and needs to be underpinned by the right education.

Introducing new delivery models

After another coffee break, Richard Murray, director of policy at the King’s Fund, spoke on new delivery models for urgent and emergency care and NHS Planning Guidance. Murray outlined the key features of NHS Planning Guidance before discussing the implications for urgent and emergency care and ambulance providers. He said it was a game of two halves: a one-year plan for 2016/17, with existing organisations as the key building block, switching to place-based plans for 2017/2018 to 2020/2021. Taken together, Murray said they offer a radical re-drawing of the boundaries in the NHS.

The final talk of the day was delivered by Dr Phil Foster, assistant medical director for Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, who spoke on the West Yorkshire Urgent and Emergency Care Vanguard. He explained how the service’s collective local vision was for all patients with emergency and urgent care needs within West Yorkshire to get ‘the right care in the right place—first time—every time.’ The aim was to give patients access to urgent and emergency care through 999 and 111 and given an improved experience with care provided closer to home. This would be a standard service offering across West Yorkshire.

Celebrating excellence at the AACE Outstanding Service Awards

The evening saw delegates celebrate the AACE Outstanding Service Awards. Sponsored by Ferno UK Ltd in aid of the Ambulance Services Charity, ambulance service employees form across England who have gone above and beyond the call of duty were recognised and commended for their outstanding service. The Outstanding Paramedic Award went to Abigail Evans, a cycle response unit paramedic for London Ambulance Service NHS Trust. The Outstanding Mentor or Tutor Award went to Chris Mathews, a critical care paramedic with South East Coast Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust. Outstanding Innovation and Change Awards went to Adam Aston, a paramedic with West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust and Thomas Heywood, a clinical manager for Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust. The Outstanding Non-Paramedic Clinician Award went to Steve Wainwright, and emergency care assistant for East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust. The Outstanding Control Services Employee Award went to Craig Foster, a call operator for North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust. The Outstanding Manager Award went to Karen Gardner, operations manager for North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust. The Outstanding Support Services Award went to Tez Westwood, Hazardous Area Response Tram support technician for East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust. The Outstanding Senior Management Award went to Tracy Nicholls, head of quality governance for East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust and the Outstanding Welfare and Wellbeing Award went to Ben Lambert, a team leader for South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust.

Workshops allow delegates to discuss emerging themes

The second day, co-hosted by NHS Confederation, featured a morning of facilitated workshops, concluding with a conference summary and forward view. Delegates were given a choice to attend workshops on the themes of ‘our workforce’, ‘technological and digital enablement’, and ‘vanguards and innovation’.

A summary of the main themes discussed in the workforce workshop include the need to engage with staff meaningfully, understanding culture but also taking change, collaboration, and a recognition of whether or not we are doing as much as we can on mental health and race equality.

The technology workshop had a key theme around innovation, and an emphasis that ambulance services are much more than a transportation service. There was a strong feeling that there needs to be better capture and use of data in technological advancements, that procurement needs to be looked at as a whole-systems approach, and that ambulance services should embrace social media.

Within the vanguard workshop there was a clear sense of the great work that is being done across the country. It was recognised that a lot of the components of a really good system are in place, but that we have to learn from each other’s organisations. There was also an emphasis on ensuring that the right culture is in place within services.

With difficulty comes opportunity

The conference came to a close with Anthony Marsh commending the optimism shared by delegates during what is a challenging time for the NHS. He quoted the BBC programme Inside Out, saying there is ‘no need to be miserable, we are winning the war.’ Martin Flaherty, managing director of AACE, then remarked on how sobering it was to hear about the challenging times ahead, particularly around finance. However, he said with difficulty comes opportunity and that as a sector we are always doing our best when in difficulty.

Delegates left with much food for thought and plenty of ideas for implementing change within their own services. Feedback has been positive, with one delegate saying: ‘Excellent conference, completely relevant to our practice in emergency medicine,’ while another remarked: ‘I think the organisation was superb and the quality of speakers and breadth of subject matter was really relevant.’ Congratulations must be extended to AACE for an engaging two days, and delegates can look forward to returning for another year.

Taken from Journal of Paramedic Practice, published 4 March 2016.