Ambulance Watch: Failings may have played a part in 59 deaths

Ambulances parked up outside A&E at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Picture: Denise Bra

Ambulances parked up outside A&E at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant 2013

Ambulance service failings may have contributed to almost 60 deaths in the region in the last three-and-a-half years, according to new figures.

The new chief executive of the East of England Ambulance Service has been urged to restore the public's confidence and urgently improve performance after new figures revealed that the number of serious incidents reported to the trust almost doubled in the space of a year.

A total of 155 serious incidents have been logged at the NHS trust since April 2010, of which 59 relate to unexpected or avoidable deaths of patients.

The new figures, which come from a Freedom of Information request, comes after the parents of 26-year-old Peter Nelson demanded answers from the ambulance service after their son died from a brain haemorrhage after a two hour wait for an ambulance in Blakeney on November 14. His death was one of 25 serious incidents (SI) across the East of England Ambulance Service area between April and December last year.

Figures revealed by the NHS trust show that there were 27 SIs across the six counties in 2010/11, of which 15 related to the deaths of patients.

During the 2011/12 financial year, the number of SIs jumped to 51, with 17 relating to the deaths of patients, and there were 52 serious incidents in 2012/13, of which 18 related to patient deaths.

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The figures come as Anthony Marsh, chief executive of the West Midlands Ambulance Service, started his new role as the part time CEO of the East of England Ambulance Service last week. His first day at the trust involved him meeting and greeting staff in Norwich, Ipswich and Peterborough on Thursday.

North Norfolk MP and health minister Norman Lamb said there appeared to be a reduction in the number of SIs so far in 2013/14. However, the ambulance trust still had a long way to go to improve response times and performance.

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'These figures underline very powerfully why it is so important to see a dramatic improvement in the performance of the EEAST. Anthony Marsh clearly understands the scale of the challenge but has also been very clear about the steps which need to be taken.'

'It is essential that people in the East of England - and particularly those living in rural Norfolk - have confidence in the ambulance service. Our fantastic paramedics should now have the leadership in the organisation to enable them to deliver a great, reliable service but it will take time to turn things around and to recruit the extra paramedics that we need,' he said.

The ambulance trust was ordered to take urgent action last year to raise performance following an inspection by the health watchdog, the Care Quality Commission.

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Bosses pledged last year to hire hundreds of extra front-line staff. However, the EDP revealed in November that after recruiting 47 paramedics and specialist paramedics last year, 40 paramedics left the trust, which covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

Denise Burke, from the Act on Ambulances campaign and Labour's parliamentary candidate for North Norfolk, said the figures were 'worrying' and highlighted the need for more front-line staff.

'Our hope is that with Anthony Marsh starting in his new role, we hope he will start to turn things around and improve the recruitment of paramedics, which is the only way we are going to get more response vehicles on the ground and reducing serious incidents.'

'Additional paramedics will enable more ambulances, which has got to help response times. However, it is not just about recruiting extra paramedics, the trust needs additional funding,' she said.

Scott Turner, interim medical director, for EEAST, said: 'We would like to extend our sympathies to the families of all of the patients, and in each case we have been open with the family to inform them of the process, and then the findings of the investigation. In each of these cases, the patients were already very unwell upon the arrival of the ambulance and died as a result of their illness. It's therefore not always possible to determine whether a different course of action by our clinicians would have led to a different outcome.'

'It must be remembered that the number of serious incidents reported every year is a tiny percentage of the total number of jobs we attend. Ideally there would be no serious incidents at all but when they do happen, it is important to look into them and we always encourage staff to flag any issues they have in order for them to be fully investigated. Each serious incident is thoroughly examined and reported externally, and measures put into place to help prevent such incidents happening again.'

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