Last year, paramedics wasted 500,000 hours stuck outside Accident & Emergency departments with a patient in the back of their ambulance because hospitals were too busy to accept them, a report has warned.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said it was the equivalent of 41,000 12-hour ambulance shifts being wasted with waiting instead of paramedics being able to help other emergencies.
In fact, just one in 10 of the country’s ambulance services – the West Midlands ambulance service – met response targets in 2016, the aim of which is to ensure that life-threatening calls receive prompt attention.
Paramedics are supposed to take no longer than 15 minutes to ensure that a patient is safely handed over to A&E staff before spending another 15 minutes preparing their ambulance to get back on the road once more.
However, the report highlights how ambulance crews are being forced to wait with patients in overstretched A&E departments, sometimes forcing them off the road for hours.
“Each failure to meet this standard results in a poor experience for the patient and a delay in an ambulance crew being available for a new emergency call,” the report says.
In 2016, just 58% of paramedics transferred patients from their ambulance within 15 minutes and 65% were ready to leave 15 minutes later.
The 500,000 hours lost at casualty units last year represents a 50% increase from the number of hours wasted in 2013 – 334,000.
Ambulance response time targets state that crews are meant to arrive at the scene of 75% of Red 1 and Red 2 calls within eight minutes. Red 1 calls involve life-threatening emergencies, such as patients who have suffered a cardiac arrest, are not breathing and do not have a pulse, while Red 2 calls are less immediately time-critical, but may still involve a problem like a heart attack or stroke.
Less urgent Green 1 calls have a target of 20 minutes.
In the South West, some patients in the most urgent Red 1 category were left waiting almost 45 minutes after 999 was called, while waits of more than 40 minutes were seen in the North East and North West of England.
A 10% vacancy rate for paramedics, and ambulance trusts’ difficulties in retaining staff, were flagged by the NAO as obstacles to tackling what it describes as “significant challenges.” Furthermore, a steep rise in calls to ambulance services over the past six years – from 7.9 million to 10.7 million – has added “unprecedented” levels of demand to the already “overwhelmed” ambulance trusts.
Phil McCarvill, deputy director of analysis at the NHS Confederation, said: “Our highly skilled and dedicated ambulance personnel are working incredibly hard to make sure people get the right care where and when they need it, but they are having to respond to unprecedented demand for health and care services.”
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