Ambulance Watch: Have your say on our ambulance service

Today The Eastern Daily Press is asking searching questions about this region's ambulance service.

We are launching EDP Ambulance Watch and it includes a survey into the service provided by the East of England Ambulance Service Trust. Our response follows worrying reports of delays in getting crews to the scene of incidents. In Norfolk alone, between April and August this year, one in three of the most serious 999 calls to stricken patients did not meet the national target of arrival within eight minutes. Meanwhile, we have received more and more reports of patients waiting hours for ambulances to arrive. So we have launched our survey today to get your views of the service.

We are asking what has been going wrong and how can it be put right. And we want to hear any good stories of exceptional service from hard-pressed crews.

Health minister Norman Lamb, who as MP for North Norfolk has been pressuring ambulance bosses for a better service for the county, backed the EDP, saying: 'It's very important for local newspapers to highlight the cases where things go wrong and make sure we hold the organisations to account and demand improvements.'

Concerns have also centred on rural response times, ambulance turnaround times at hospitals, back-up ambulance delays and a staff rota redesign.

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Paramedics and ambulance staff themselves say morale is low as they strive to deliver the care they desperately want to give and they often find themselves having to apologise to upset or angry patients who are frustrated by delays.

The stories we have heard show members of the public feel the crews themselves do a fine job.

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Rightly, they and the service are praised on many occasions for the help they give and for saving lives.

But the rising number of cases of patients not getting the service they have a right to expect has led us to question what is happening at the EEAST.

It needs to be acknowledged that the ambulance service receives more than 2,300 emergency calls a day across six counties. Many are successfully dealt with in an appropriate way, with patients left reassured and satisfied with the help they received. Many will not actually need an ambulance to be sent out on blue lights.

We all know how bad our rural roads can be and how long it can take to travel from outlying parts of the county and this rural geography no doubt makes it harder for the ambulance trust to deliver a high standard of service.

But that does not mean patients in these areas should accept they are less likely to get an ambulance as quickly as other parts of the region.

We have heard about too many cases where elderly patients are left waiting hours for an ambulance to take them to hospital and having to wait to be admitted to hospital accident and emergency departments, particularly at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

This is clearly not acceptable.

Last night, a spokesman for the ambulance service said it had already acknowledged that improvements could and should be made, which is why it was boosting coverage in Norfolk and changing rotas so crews were where they were needed.

She said: 'We are having to save �50m over the next five years as part of our NHS efficiency savings but, unlike other trusts, are not reducing services or making staff redundant.

'Instead we are aiming to continue delivering an improving service by doing more with less thanks to smarter working rotas among other measures like the clinical support desks, which currently save 900 unnecessary ambulance call-outs a week by directing patients with minor ailments to a more appropriate resource.

'We have improved on back-up delays and continue to work to reduce them further.

'We are contracted to meet performance targets on a trust-wide level because rural geography with longer run times, less demand predictability and greater distances to hospital inevitably means there is variation in our response times.

'To meet national targets by county we have estimated we would need an extra �30m a year.

'However, we are committed to improving the rural service and, in addition to more resources, have also brought in local floor targets for these areas.

'We take all complaints very seriously and endeavour to learn lessons from each one, so would encourage anyone with concerns to contact us.

'We receive three times as many compliments as complaints every year from patients and would like to reassure the public that our number one priority is to provide a good service and to meet reasonable expectations.'

She added that while many people understand that 999 is designed for medical emergencies and life-threatening situations, there was still a misunderstanding regarding response times.

She said: 'Fewer than 30pc of our calls last year warranted the highest priority of eight minutes, which only applies to life-threatening conditions like serious stroke and cardiac arrest. The remainder are graded through nationally adopted guidelines from 20 minutes to diabetic problems, to 30 minutes for a fall with an injury like a broken limb, to an hour for a fall where the patient hasn't sustained a serious injury, or telephone advice when the patient could make their own way to A&E or go to a more appropriate resource like an out-of-hours doctor or walk-in centre. Only 60pc of the patients we actually attend need to go to hospital.'

To take part in our survey, click on the link at the top right hand of this page.

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