Ambulance Delays Affecting Rapid Patient Treatment

Stephanie Prior
Ambulance vehicles at the Royal London Hospital

Table of Contents

In 2017, the Secretary of State for Health accepted the new ambulance performance standards recommended by NHS England, meaning that the 11 ambulance services now operate within 4 distinct categories of response, ranging from Category 1 which is ‘life-threatening’ to Category 4 which is ‘non-urgent’. The category allocated to the initial emergency call dictates the speed that ambulances must respond. For Category 1 calls, it is expected that ambulances will respond within 7 minutes on average, and to 90% of calls within 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, these targets are not being met. Reports show that right now, ambulance services are receiving record numbers of calls and in July 2021, no national ambulance waiting time standards were met. Indeed, news stories from across the country reveal how sick patients with life-threatening conditions are having to wait hours for help to arrive.

Death due to ambulance delay?
This month, the family of a 73-year-old doctor and NHS campaigner called for an investigation after it took paramedics more than half an hour to arrive at the scene after the operators were told he was in cardiac arrest. His son said, ‘It took 35 minutes from when the ambulance call was made and 30 minutes from when the cardiac arrest occurred before paramedics got to the flat. By then it was too late. If the ambulance had arrived according to normal acceptable response times, he almost certainly […] would have survived’.

Rising numbers of 999 calls
Part of the problem behind the failed response times is the increasing number of 999 calls. In June 2021, the Northwest Ambulance Service took more than 155,000 emergency calls, representing 48,000 more than during the same time in June 2020 and 23,000 more than in 2019. In addition, patients making the calls are more seriously ill or injured, with Category 1 incidents increased by 27% when compared to the same time the previous year.

There is also concern that due to the high volume of calls, some people dialing 999 have to wait up to 10 minutes before their call is answered, leading staff to warn that there is a chance of patients coming to harm while waiting for their call to be picked up. One call handler said, ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about what could be on the other end of those phones trying to get through’ (ibid).

Queuing outside Accident and Emergency
As well as dealing with a high number of calls, once patients are picked up, ambulances are taking longer to hand over patients from their care, as hospitals struggle with unprecedented patient numbers. The chief executive of the College of Paramedics said that some ambulance crews have waited up to 9 hours to transfer a patient to hospital. Naturally, this has a knock-on effect on the ability for ambulance teams to respond to incoming emergency calls.

Recently a major incident was declared in Truro, Cornwall when 26 ambulances were parked overnight outside the hospital’s A and E department. An anonymous paramedic said, ‘The hospital does not have the capacity to take the patients stacked in the system […] so patients have to wait for many hours in ambulances outside the hospital. We cannot meet the standards we all must achieve, and patient care is suffering. We are tired, frustrated and demotivated, with rock bottom morale.’.

Inappropriate calls exacerbating the problem
As well as rising numbers of emergency calls and backed up patient handovers, the ambulance service is also suffering from a slew of calls from patients who cannot get to see their GP or who are fed up waiting on hold to get advice from the 111-telephone line. There are inappropriate calls, such as the person who called 999 as they did not know how to turn on their oven, and the other who rang because they had shampoo in their eyes. As one paramedic said, ‘We were sent to a broken acrylic fingernail that was hurting. It will be reported as something entirely different. When you get there, you find out what has really happened’.

Staff and funding shortages throughout the NHS
It is evident that delays in patient care within hospitals have a significant impact on the ability of emergency crews to attend life-threatening situations. The entire NHS system was already under immense pressure prior to COVID. The pandemic has just increased the strain.

How we can help
If you have suffered due to extended ambulance wait times, you may have recourse within the law. To find out more, get in touch with our specialist medical negligence solicitors who will advise you whether or not you can claim. For a confidential conversation call us or fill in an online enquiry form and we will contact you back.

Head of medical negligence at Osbornes Law, Stephanie Prior, recently represented a family seeking justice after a loved one tragically died following ambulance delays. Read the full case study here

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