Ambulance Delays Affecting Rapid Patient Treatment

10 Aug 2023 | Stephanie Prior
Ambulance vehicles at the Royal London Hospital

In 2017, the Secretary of State for Health accepted the new ambulance performance standards recommended by NHS England, meaning that the 11 ambulance services now operate within 4 distinct categories of response, ranging from Category 1, which is ‘life-threatening’ to Category 4, which is ‘non-urgent’. The category allocated to the initial emergency call dictates the speed that ambulances must respond. For Category 1 calls, ambulances are expected to respond within 7 minutes on average, and to 90% of calls within 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, these targets are not being met. The press has recently spoken of continued delays with ambulance services for individuals who are in need. Specifically, it has been stated that the North East Ambulance Service in particular still requires improvement regarding the delays people within the UK are experiencing.

It has been reported that on average in 2022, it was taking 90 minutes for an ambulance to arrive for stroke and heart attack victims in England. For victims of serious illnesses such as strokes and heart attacks, ambulance delays need to be avoided, as they can have a severe impact on the life of the individual in need.

Death due to ambulance delay

In some cases, it is clear that the damage to the individual’s health could have been prevented but for the delays. The family of a 73-year-old doctor and NHS campaigner called for an investigation after it took paramedics more than half an hour to arrive at the scene after the operators were told he was in cardiac arrest. His son said, “It took 35 minutes from the ambulance call and 30 minutes from the cardiac arrest before paramedics got to the flat. By then, it was too late. He almost certainly would have survived if the ambulance had arrived according to normal, acceptable response times.”

Rising numbers of 999 calls

Part of the problem behind the failed response times is the increasing number of 999 calls. In June 2021, the Northwest Ambulance Service took more than 155,000 emergency calls, representing 48,000 more than during the same time in June 2020 and 23,000 more than in 2019. In addition, patients making the calls are more seriously ill or injured, with Category 1 incidents increasing by 27% compared to the previous year.

There is also concern that due to the high volume of calls, some people dialing 999 have to wait up to 10 minutes before their call is answered, leading staff to warn that there is a chance of patients coming to harm while waiting for their call to be picked up. One call handler said, ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about what could be on the other end of those phones trying to get through’ (ibid).

Ambulances queuing outside Accident and Emergency

As well as dealing with a high number of calls, once patients are picked up, ambulances take longer to hand over patients from their care as hospitals struggle with unprecedented patient numbers. The College of Paramedics chief executive said that some ambulance crews had waited up to 9 hours to transfer a patient to hospital. Naturally, this has a knock-on effect on the ability for ambulance teams to respond to incoming emergency calls.

Recently a major incident was declared in Truro, Cornwall, when 26 ambulances were parked overnight outside the hospital’s A and E department. An anonymous paramedic said, ‘The hospital does not have the capacity to take the patients stacked in the system […] so patients have to wait for many hours in ambulances outside the hospital. We cannot meet the standards we must achieve, and patient care suffers. We are tired, frustrated and demotivated, with rock bottom morale.’.

Inappropriate 999 calls exacerbate the ambulance delays

As well as rising numbers of emergency calls and backed-up patient handovers, the ambulance service also suffers from a slew of calls from patients who cannot see their GP or are fed up waiting on hold to get advice from the 111-telephone line. There are inappropriate calls, such as the person who called 999 as they did not know how to turn on their oven, and the other who rang because they had shampoo in their eyes. As one paramedic said, ‘We were sent to a broken acrylic fingernail that was hurting. It will be reported as something entirely different. When you get there, you find out what has happened’.

Staff and funding shortages throughout the NHS

It is evident that hospital patient care delays significantly impact emergency crews’ ability to attend to life-threatening situations. The entire NHS system was already under immense pressure before COVID. The pandemic has just increased the strain.

Can you make an ambulance delay claim?

If you or someone you know has experienced ambulance delays which have impacted the outcome of your health, then medical negligence may be proven in some cases.

To prove this, there would need to be:

  1. An act which has fallen below a reasonable standard of care.

This can include an ambulance delay.

  1. This failure would need to have caused the patient to have a worse outcome than they would have, if the initial failure had not taken place.

Unless there is a causal link between the initial failure and the worsening condition, then the claim is unlikely to be successful.

How Osbornes Law can help

Sadly, many people are contacting our specialist medical negligence lawyers following a delay in the treatment of a health problem due to ambulance delays. In some cases, the delay in treatment can amount to negligent care. Therefore, our experienced lawyers can advise you on whether a claim can be pursued against. Please contact our clinical negligence team for an initial consultation.

Head of medical negligence at Osbornes Law, Stephanie Prior, recently represented a family seeking justice after a loved one tragically died following ambulance delays. Read the full case study here

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    • Stephanie has developed a particularly strong reputation for her handling of birth injury claims, as well as cases concerning surgical negligence and delays in surgery.

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