Revealed: How Norfolk mental health patients endured waits of up to eight hours for ambulances

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
6:30 AM

People detained under the Mental Health Act in Norfolk have had to wait up to eight hours for ambulances to take them to hospital, it has emerged.

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And, last year, police cells were used as a “place of safety” for people having a mental health crisis almost 40 times - a situation which should only happen in “exceptional circumstances”.

But health bosses insist action is being taken, including a pilot scheme to get ambulances to people sectioned more quickly and basing a mental health practitioner in the police call centre to provide specialist advice.

Discussions are also taking place which would enable the three section 136 suites - where patients should be taken rather than to police cells - to be permanently staffed.

At the moment, staff have to be released from other duties so those suites, at Hellesdon Hospital in Norwich, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn and Northgate Hospital in Great Yarmouth, can be used.

A “street triage” service, where a mental health practitioner accompanies police officers to assess whether individuals should be detained under the Mental Health Act, could also be introduced.

At yesterday’s meeting of Norfolk County Council’s community services overview and scrutiny panel, Bert Bremner, Labour councillor for University ward, said it was “quite amazing” people sectioned under the Mental Health Act had been forced to wait, along with mental health practitioners and police, for up to eight hours for an ambulance to take them to a “place of safety”.

Clive Rennie, from NHS Norfolk, told the committee: “The ambulance has been en route to a mental health patient, but is then diverted to a physical health issue, so there have been cases where mental health practitioners, and the police as well, have sat waiting for eight hours plus. It’s not a good situation, obviously.”

Ambulance bosses said if a call comes in that is categorised as a higher priority then there was the possibility ambulances would be diverted, and the next available dispatched.

But they said a pilot project had been introduced to improve the service to people being sectioned under the mental health act.

Tim Hayes, Norfolk’s clinical general manager for East of England Ambulance Service Trust, said: “It is important that all of our patients, whether suffering from physical or mental health problems, receive the right treatment at the right time in the right place.

“We have introduced a pilot scheme in Norfolk and Suffolk for when mental health professionals are with patients they have sectioned under the Mental Health Act and need them transporting to hospital.

“The mental health professional decides on the timeframe that their patient needs collecting in to ensure that those patients who are particularly agitated or distressed receive an appropriately rapid response from us.”

The lack of specialist beds for people with mental health problems also came in for criticism, with patients having to be taken out of Norfolk to get care.

Clive Rennie, from NHS Norfolk, told councillors that a national shortage of beds meant health staff found themselves having to ringing around counterparts in the rest of the country to find suitable beds.

He said: “People are being conveyed long distances to certain provision. They are monitored very closely and we try to bring them back to Norfolk as quickly as possible. It’s not conducive to anyone that people go to distant places.”

Kathy Chapman, director of operations at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, said, as of yesterday there were 19 ‘out-of-trust’ placements.

She said: “The trust and clinical commissioning groups have put in place a range of actions to ensure these reduce over the next few weeks and that people who need hospital beds are admitted locally.

“These plans involve placing mental health professionals with the police and at A&E departments, enhancing our 24-hour crisis mental health services, improving ambulance transport for people with mental health problems and providing accommodation for people ready to leave hospital to free up beds for people who need them.”

• What do you think of the care in Norfolk for people with mental health problems? Write, giving full contact details, to Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.

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