Ambulance issues

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AN AMBULANCE crew which brought a patient to Craigavon Hospital were off the road for almost four hours as they waited to hand their charge over to the care of hospital staff.

In February, the longest ambulance turnaround time was 3 hours and 51 minutes - second only to the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald where one turnaround time lasted almost five and a half hours.

In February alone almost 280 patients had to wait longer than 45 minutes to be handed over to hospital staff after they arrived in an ambulance.

Most patients, 694 of them, waited between 15 and 30 minutes when arriving at Craigavon’s Accident and Emergency while 270 waited less than 15 minutes. A total of 292 patients arriving by ambulance had to wait between 30 and 45 minutes.

These figures were assembled from a total of 1,535 call outs attended by the Ambulance Service in February to Craigavon Hospital.

They were sourced from an Assembly Question by TUV MLA Jim Allister who said: “Some of the answers across the province are quite staggering.”

Sinn Fein councillor Johnny McGibbon described the figures as ‘disturbing and unacceptable’. “Though ambulance delays of over two hours at A&E represent only 0.6% of all cases it is nevertheless unacceptable. That even one ambulance should be kept out of service unnecessarily gives rise to concern.”

Councillor McGibbon said the delays were not necessarily due to problems within the Ambulance Service. “The questions posed to the Minister asked for statistics when it is the reasons for the delays that need to be identified.”

He said the Assembly Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee wrote to the Minister on this issue and have requested a research paper: “Their approach will pin down the cause of unacceptable delays and allow for constructive actions to resolve the problem.”

SDLP Councillor Joe Nelson also expressed concern: “While I am pleased to see that the overwhelming majority of patients are signed into the hospital’s care within 30 minutes of being brought in by ambulance crews, the truth is that, in 18% of cases, it took in excess of 45 minutes.

“That statistic alone is concerning and the fact that one patient in February waited nearly four hours just to be signed over to the hospital beggars belief.”

Upper Bann DUP MLA Stephen Moutray is also concerned. “It is the case that the transfer times outlined in these Ministerial answers are not simply about the handing over of patients from ambulance staff to Emergency staff, but also include the period of time required to make the vehicle ready for the next call. So there is a degree of uncertainty and a lack of clarity built in to the questions.

“But that being said there is no doubt that these statistics are a cause of concern. Patients need to be seen by the appropriate clinical personnel as soon as possible in order to ensure that the appropriate treatment is given. This is especially the case in Emergency Departments where timing can make such a crucial difference.”

“Patient care must always be the priority,” said the MLA adding he had met with the Chief Executive of the NI Ambulance Service to raise these concerns as well as asking for a meeting with the Southern Trust.

Ulster Unionist MLA Samuel Gardiner said that Southern Group hospitals ‘compare very favourably with ambulance turn-around times across the Province’. “Craigavon Area Hospital has an ambulance turn-around time of less than 45 minutes for 82% of patients,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Southern Health and Social Care Trust confirmed the waiting times reported adding they referred to the entire time an ambulance spent at the Hospital including the periods before and after patients have been handed over to Emergency Department staff.

“These figures relate to a one month period only and therefore do not reflect performance generally in relation to turnaround times at both Emergency Departments in the Southern Trust. The Trust has escalation procedures in place to minimise the time that patients wait to be transferred from ambulance to the Emergency Department including procedures which are initiated by ambulance staff where significant delays are experienced. We are currently investigating the circumstances regarding the longest turnaround times during February which are referred to in the report.

“At times of high patient occupancy and activity levels, delays may sometimes occur. Significantly more people than average attended the Emergency Department at Craigavon Area Hospital during the month of February which resulted in some additional delays in processing patients through the Emergency Department.

“We regret that patients had to waiting longer than usual at that time but we would like to reassure people that providing safe high quality care remains the priority for the Trust,” said the Trust spokesperson.