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What can be done to improve increasing ambulance response times?

Tongue-in-cheek as it may have been, the topic of Sunday night’s Top Gear focused on ambulance response times and raised some pertinent questions surrounding an increasingly worrying topic. The show concentrated on the emergency services and the reported that the average response time for an ambulance to get to a life-threatening situation was approximately 8 minutes; it looked at how it could be improved.

Obviously the Top Gear exploits were meant for comic effect but the sentiment was real. Ambulance response times are chillingly slow compared to other countries (New York City’s was on average 6 minutes 50 seconds in 2014) and apparently if recent reports are to believed, they are getting worse.

NHS performance data revealed that ambulances are slower to reach patients with life-threatening conditions (stroke, heart attack or stab victims) after the 999 call than 2 years ago. In the period December 2011 to December 2013 9 of the 11 regional NHS ambulance services response times deteriorated.

What’s the solution?

There is no single fix for this issue and there will always be uncontrollable factors that will have a direct impact on the length of time it takes an ambulance to get to an emergency scene.

However, two separate reports by Capita (focusing on improving call response times in Wales) and by the Department for Health (which focused on high impact changes and response time algorithms) go into more detail as the issues faced and what can be done.

Additionally, an announcement made by Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt in January detailed a new trial that would hopefully help reduce the response times of ambulances in London in getting to life-threatening issues and also eradicate the journeys by ambulances and paramedics that are wasted.

The trial will see 999 call-handlers given slightly more time to assess the situation and ensure that ambulances are deployed more accurately and to patients who are in desperate need of treatment.

Under the trial the 8 minutes response time for the ambulance will not change, however the 1 minute maximum time for the call-handler will increase to 3 minutes so that they have more time to gather additional information to better assess the situation.

Figures released by the NHS stated that approximately 10% of 999 ambulance calls are life-threatening whereas nearly 40% of the calls are put into this category; this is believe to be as a result of the call-handler not having enough time to gather the correct information before sending out an ambulance.

Results of whether this trial has been a success remains to be seen but initiatives and tweaks like this need to be made to ensure that our ambulance services are given the best chance to achieve what they set out to do. It won’t happen overnight but it can be done.

The general public must also accept some responsibility for helping improve ambulance response times. As detailed in a previous blog post here regarding A&E waiting times, patients have to use some common sense and ensure that calling 999 is the correct option.

A spokesman for the NHS stated that approximately 30% of patients using hospital’s emergency departments had ‘non-urgent ailments’ and should considering using the 111 helpline before dialling 999 or going to A&E.  A reduction in this number (possibly to the 111 number) would also help free up ambulances for situations where they were desperately needed.

What are your experiences of dealing with 999 call-handlers and of ambulance response times? What do you think could be done to help improve? Get in touch and let us know.