Ambulance Targets Improve As Volunteers Drive Sick To Hospital

Volunteer ambulance crews are being used to take sick patients to hospital in a bid to reduce delays. A number of St John Cymru employees and volunteers have been drafted in by the Welsh Ambulance Service to answer urgent calls from GPs who request an ambulance to take a patient to hospital.

The high dependency service has been developed as a pilot project in South East Wales. But the Welsh Ambulance Service is now hoping to employ its own staff to take over the service. It comes amid widespread criticism from GPs that patients often have to wait hours for an ambulance to take them to hospital, even though they may be very sick.

Chris Simms, acting head of production for the South East region of the Welsh Ambulance Service, said, “We operate a priority system and the impact of the large number of 999 calls means that the urgent calls get pushed down the queue. Patients who are ill tend to be dealt with after those people who decide to dial 999. We have recognised that we need to deal with these patients in a different way rather than them being at the mercy of emergency call demand.”

The highly critical inquiry into the ambulance service by the Auditor General for Wales highlighted the service’s continuing failures to respond to urgent GP calls. Jeremy Colman’s report said it was one of the reasons for “GPs’ dissatisfaction” with the ambulance service.

It is not uncommon for GPs to have to contact the ambulance service three or four times when an ambulance has failed to collect a patient at an allotted time – some become so frustrated at the long waits that they call 999 instead.

The pilot high dependency scheme was set up on March 12 and will run until the end of this month. In its first four weeks performance has improved by 10% in the region – almost six out of 10 ambulances now get their urgent patients to hospital within 15 minutes of the time set by GPs.

Between two and four St John Cymru crews – both full-time members of staff and volunteers – work with the ambulance service on Mondays to Fridays responding to calls for an ambulance from GPs.

Dorien Williams, St John Cymru’s patient transport services manager, said, “To date the involvement of St John has been mainly on a voluntary sector basis. We have helped out on Black Friday, at sporting events and at Christmas – at peak times. But on this occasion the work has been carried out by full-time staff of the patient transport services with some volunteers mixed in. It has been very good, and I’m sure that we have been helping the ambulance service achieve its targets.”

Ashley Jones, a St John Cymru patient transport co-ordinator, said, “I was involved in six calls on Monday and there have been no problems whatsoever – everyone we were sent to was overwhelmed to see us.”

Mr Simms added, “Urgent patients have always tended to be overshadowed by 999 calls but now we are able to give these patients the urgency they deserve.”

The Welsh Ambulance Service transports some 63,000 urgent patients every year.

A performance standard for GP urgent calls was introduced from April 1999 and states that in 95% of cases, the ambulance should arrive at hospital no more than 15 minutes later than the time agreed by the GP for urgent patients.

Currently only 69.6% of calls meet this target in Wales – in the South East region the figure is 57%.