THE ambulance service has pleaded for callers to “stop wasting our time” to help improve response rates and save lives.
South Central Ambulance Service said one in 10 of the 999 calls it has to respond to are inappropriate and do not need an ambulance.
The service received 47,188 calls from the public in Oxfordshire in 2011/12 and 71,866 in 2012/13, responding to 17,443 and 19,759 with an ambulance.
As each ambulance call-out costs £247, this means inappropriate calls accounted for £430,000 in 2011/12 and about £488,000 in 2012/13.
Ambulance requests have included patients who could not afford a taxi to hospital, had an eyelash in their eye or needed help with an injured animal.
South Central Ambulance Service chief operating officer John Nichols said: “Inappropriate calls could cost lives.
“It is important that when we do mobilise a crew there is a high confidence that the patient really does need that emergency resource.
“While the crew is tied up with that they are not able to then respond to another patient.”
The ambulance service also received 177 hoax calls in 2012/13 (0.25 per cent of all calls) although these were down on the previous year, when 240 hoaxes were received (0.51 per cent). Hoax calls differ from inappropriate ones, as they are deemed to be intentionally wasting the service’s time. Across the county, the ambulance service had “unprecedented” demand in 2012 due to the increase in call-outs compared to 2011. Mr Nichols said about six per cent of calls are now dealt with by nurses or paramedics over the phone and hoped to increase this to 10 per cent by boosting clinical staff at the Bicester control room – which deals with most Oxfordshire calls – from about three to five or six in the next year.
He said paramedics were increasingly offering advice at the scene about which service to access, rather than transporting all patients to hospital. The service was working with rural medical facilities to avoid taking patients into Oxford or Banbury hospitals and retain the ambulance in rural areas.
The Oxford Mail revealed earlier this month that the ambulance service had failed to meet its target of getting to three-quarters of the most urgent emergencies within eight minutes in the last year in West Oxfordshire, South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse.
Mr Nichols also said the ambulance service, although already working in schools, is preparing an education programme to teach primary school children about first aid and appropriate 999 use, which could be rolled out in Oxfordshire schools within the next few years.
Mark Booty, West Oxfordshire District Council cabinet member for health, said: “Inappropriate calls to the ambulance service are not acceptable. There needs to be a level of education to explain to people what is a 999 call and what is not.”
But he said ambulance service operators should screen inappropriate calls more effectively to stop ambulances from being sent out needlessly.
County councillor Jenny Hannaby, member of Oxfordshire joint health overview and scrutiny committee, said: “The ambulance service and the medical profession generally should be doing a big exercise in publicity because you cannot expect everyone to know when to call 999.
“People automatically ring 999 because they have done so forever – 999 is what people have got in their heads.”
She added that the number of inappropriate calls was “no excuse” for poor response times across rural districts.
The legal position:
THE ambulance service has a legal responsibility to answer 999 calls but the law surrounding responding to incidents is less clear cut.
South Central Ambulance Service chief operating officer John Nichols said: “We have a duty to answer 999 calls, which we do, but beyond that the law is not overly clear as to whether or not we can refuse to physically respond to patients.
“It is not really clear in the words of the NHS Act and legislation, but there is a general duty of care for the NHS.
“On the emergency side, with that duty of care you trust the patient and treat rather than do not, or respond rather than not.”
The ambulance service can prosecute hoax callers and take out injunctions against frequent callers who do not require medical treatment.
What to do:
PEOPLE should only contact 999 and request an ambulance in the event of a genuine medical emergency.
This includes serious accidents, severe loss of blood, heart attacks, cardiac arrests, strokes and difficulty breathing.
In urgent but not immediate cases, people should use 111.
Those with less serious conditions should attend local accident emergency departments or their out-of-hours GP service.
For minor cuts, bruises, aches and pains, visit a walk-in centre or minor injuries unit, and for general medication advice consult a pharmacist.
Examples of time-wasting:
IN THE last three years, the ambulance service has been called out to:
A driver who broke down on the M40 and was unable to get through to the recovery service.
An Oxford school because staff were concerned a child was going blue. The child had blue paint on them. A drunk man who wanted help to get up the steps to his house on New Year’s Eve.
A young woman who had a headache after a night out in Oxford.
A man who wanted paramedics to treat his dog’s injured leg.
A man from Kidlington who was reporting that a hedgehog had been run over.
A woman who called from Japan for help for her father in Oxford who was having problems breathing. When operators called the man it was discovered he was actually struggling to undo the cap on his nasal spray.
For help fitting a lightbulb.
For help buying cigarettes.
To find a TV remote control.