999 call handlers and ambulance services: time for change

There is a real and serious need for additional resources and funding within the ambulance services sector, coupled with a significant lack of awareness amongst the public as to how our ambulance services operate.

I have a number of cases involving emergency call handlers who have either failed or delayed to send out an ambulance to patients with life threatening injuries.  After realising the mother of one of my current clients did not know that when she made her 999 call, she was speaking to a non-medically trained person, I wondered just how many know that the call handlers follow a scripted system which relies heavily on trigger words and algorithms.

My growing concerns follow the tragic case of Clayton Barker who died from an asthma attack when the 999 emergency operator thought the emergency was less serious than it was. The inquest is ongoing and the conclusion might be that an ambulance could have been sent 13 minutes earlier if the correct answer had been put into the scripted system.  If Clayton’s family were told that the ambulance was not classed as a red emergency, perhaps they would have had the chance to push for Clayton to be seen by a paramedic. More importantly, if the call handler had been clinically trained s/he would have recognised that Clayton required a red code ambulance.

The London Ambulance Service NHS Trust rely on a Medical Priority Dispatch System which other ambulance services consider lacks the sensitivity to pick up each type of significant or life threatening injury.  It is my understanding that the decision whether to move a certain type of injury to a red code depends on how that change will affect the risk of reaching those in other life threatening codes.  Of course, such policy considerations come down to a lack of resources but, as a clinical negligence solicitor I am concerned by the increased number of cases involving ambulance delays.  Another one has been reported in the papers this week.

We as a community heavily rely on our 999 and ambulance services. We trust that if an emergency arises our family and loved ones will receive the emergency treatment they desperately need. Unfortunately, all to often it is a matter of life or death and every minute counts so, should the public be given more information relating to the systems used by ambulances, so that if in a situation of emergency they can have some control over the treatment they receive?

Many times there is nothing more depressing than hindsight.  I’ve heard my clients say, unfortunately, all too often “ had I known I would have fought harder for an ambulance to come out”

Alisha Patel, Medical Negligence Solicitor


Alisha Patel, Author, Marcus Weatherby,
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