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Suffolk: Toothache, week-old sprains and a common cold - just some of the 999 calls to the ambulance service

12:36 29 July 2014

The East of England Ambulance Service

The East of England Ambulance Service

Archant © 2013

Toothache, week-old sprains and a common cold.

These are some of the time-wasting 999 calls that the East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) has to deal with on a daily basis.

The East of England Ambulance HEOC control centre in NorwichThe East of England Ambulance HEOC control centre in Norwich

Toothache, week-old sprains and a common cold.

These are some of the time-wasting 999 calls that the East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) has to deal with on a daily basis.

The 999 service is meant to be for emergencies, but many of the calls taken by the Norwich HEOC (Health Emergency Operations Centre) are not life-threatening.

Call handler team leader Tracey Matthews said: “Some of the most common calls come from patients who can’t get through to NHS 111 or a GP. They get fed up with waiting and call 999 to get answered quickly.

“They don’t think of the ambulance service or other patients who are actually in life-threatening situations.

“We’ve had people call with a toothache, a pain in the foot and a cold – and they expect they will receive an ambulance.”

The trust has come under fire recently after new figures showed it had failed to meet response time targets for life-threatening emergencies.

The data, revealed in an Ipswich and East Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Group report, showed that in May, the trust met the eight-minute response target for patients who had suffered cardiac arrests and had stopped breathing 64.5% of the time.

The eight-minute response time for all other life-threatening emergencies was met just 59.7% of the time in that same period. The national standard for both targets is 75%.

Staff at the Norwich HEOC deal with calls from Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire and receive anything between 800 and 1,200 calls a day.

Senior HEOC manager Brett Norton said: “We are the biggest across the three HEOCs in the region with the most amount of staff. Our call handlers deal with 999 calls, request for GP urgent calls where the patient requires admission to hospital but not on a 999 call and referrals from NHS 111.

“Normally we have nine call handlers working at any one time but it also depends on when we know we are likely to have a period of high demand. We do have the capacity to have 15 call handlers working.”

Around 30 call handlers, dispatch operators and medics are based in the control room in Hellesdon at any one time. They are the first people a 999 caller will speak to when they require medical help.

The call handlers are often left frustrated by the volume of people dialling 999 with only minor ailments.

Mrs Matthews explained: “It’s very difficult. You can only go by what the caller is telling us at the time.

“The public need to be educated on what we are here for and what the NHS 111 system is there for to ensure they are aware of when an ambulance should be called. We treat every day as a busy day now. If we go back five years, we used to talk about winter pressures but now it’s a constant demand.

“Our call volume has increased so much. Even during the summer period due to heat which can affect the elderly, those with heart conditions and holiday-makers on the Suffolk coast. Road traffic accidents also increase if the sun is out.

“It makes you wonder how we deal with the demand as high as it is at the moment.”

Call handlers, who are not medically trained, follow a rigid set of questions in the Emergency Medical Dispatch Protocol to determine the type of response required at an emergency.

“The patients are triaged through the system and depending on their ailment they could be diverted to the most appropriate care pathway whether that is a GP, NHS 111, district nurses or making their own way to A&E,” Mrs Matthews added.

“We could also be talking callers how to deal with a cardiac arrest, how to manage an airway, stop bleeding and how to deliver babies.

“It could be that help is on its way but we need to provide instruction until that help arrives.”

Dispatch operators are in charge of ensuring the nearest and most appropriate ambulance crew of rapid response vehicle reaches urgent cases across the region.

A number of calls are also referred to the clinical support desk, which is made up of medical staff, who call back and give medical advice to patients who do not urgently need an ambulance to take them to hospital.

Some of the emergency calls last Wednesday included a woman who suffered a severe reaction after being stung by a bee in Elveden Forest, a man with diabetes who had not been taking his medication in Lowestoft, a man with anaemia who had collapsed, a pregnant woman with pain in her abdomen in Sudbury and a man who had overdosed on heroin in Ipswich.

Julie Jaciuk, who has been a call handler for six years, said: “A lot of people think ‘I have an emergency, I’ll call 999’, not what other services there are that are more suitable.

“We will always help everybody no matter what the situation.”

Mrs Jaciuk said the most common calls received by the call handlers are for falls, chest pain and fitting.

“Sometimes you will take a cardiac arrest,” she added. “I’ve helped deliver five or six babies, which are always nice, and I’ve had a special thank-you from one of those mums.”

A large computer screen in the control room tells managers how many call handlers are on duty, how many are free to answer 999 calls and how many people are waiting.

Another screen also displays the trust’s response to key ambulance service targets.

The EADT is running a 12-week campaign, entitled Make the Right Call, to help people make the right decision when it comes to healthcare.

The aim is to help relieve some of the pressures on our hospitals’ emergency departments by pointing people towards other services.

That could be achieved by self-caring at home with a well-stocked medicine cabinet, seeking advice from a pharmacist, visiting your GP or calling NHS 111 – to get the fastest treatment in the most appropriate location.


1 comment

  • I am not surprised by these facts. If people cannot get a response from 111 or their GP then what are they expected to do? And sometimes symptoms of one disease may be similar to another; for example a rash could be a simple allergic response (sometimes dangerous in itself) or meningitis (which can be fatal and needs urgent attention). Are people supposed to be medically trained now? I can understand the stupidity if they dial 999 because, for example, a light bulb is not working, but they do not have the skills always to differentiate the urgency of medical conditions.

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