Revealed: Worrying gulf in ambulance response times across our region

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

Patients in rural areas are waiting up to 12 minutes longer for an emergency ambulance than people in towns, new figures reveal today.

Kevin Brown, EEASTs director of service delivery.

Kevin Brown, EEASTs director of service delivery. - Credit: Archant

Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows the extent to which some patients are facing delays because of where they live.

One MP branded the gulf in waiting times as 'intolerable', but bosses at the East of England Ambulance Trust said it is reaching more patients faster than last year. An MP whose constituency is plagued by slower ambulance response times than elsewhere today said patients in rural areas are unfairly penalised because of national targets.

It comes as this newspaper reveals the extent of the ambulance postcode lottery in the region.

We have broken down the average emergency response time from East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust (EEAST) to each postcode.

Map key:

Red - Red 2 calls outside the national target of eight minutes of the 999 call being made

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Green - Red 2 calls inside the national target of eight minutes of the 999 call being made

Red 1 calls - Life-threatened patient who is having a cardiac arrest or has stopped breathing

Red 2 calls - All other life-threatening emergencies

The average is calculated from all ambulance responses in the region between January 2015 and July 2016.

National targets demand ambulances reach patients needing emergency help (categorised as Red 1 and Red 2) within eight minutes of the 999 call being made in 75pc of cases.

Using Red 2 calls as an example, when patients' lives are at risk, EEAST takes 4 mins 34 secs to get to patients in Bury St Edmunds (IP33), but 16 mins 44 secs to get to villages in the NR24 area – such as Briston, Melton Constable, and Edgefield.

The majority of NR24 sits in the North Norfolk constituency, where ex-health minister Norman Lamb is MP. Mr Lamb acknowledged some residents living in urban areas would always be reached quicker than in rural areas, but said the national targets means ambulance trusts focus on performance there.

'The problem is when the ambulance trust is judged on performance then you make sure you have very good response time in urban areas, where most of the people are and it's easier to get to them,' he said.

'The national targets in effect discriminate against rural areas. It's intolerable.'

He said performance should be measured by district.

Fraer Stevenson, the ambulance trust's Unison branch secretary, claimed problems with staff retention were a key factor in the trust's response times.

'Loss of experienced staff from the frontline has a massive impact on patient care and we need the trust to be more responsive over retention issues, she said.'

EEAST outlines steps to improve waiting times

It is 'extremely challenging' to get to some parts of Norfolk on time, according to Kevin Brown, EEAST's director of service delivery.

He said the trust was supported magnificently by its community first responders (CFR) and co-responders (such as the fire service), and added the number of community defibrillators has increased to more than 200 in Norfolk.

CFRs attended more than 500 patients in Norfolk in October alone, of which 43 were cardiac arrests.

Steps taken to improve response times include asking managers to do shifts on the road, recruiting nearly 800 student paramedics, and increasing staff-numbers through new roles such as 'associate ambulance practitioners' and 'intermediate ambulance practitioners'.

Capacity at the trust is also pressured by crews being delayed outside hospitals' A&E departments and helping patients get care elsewhere.

So far in Norfolk the trust has received more than 2,700 Red 1 calls and more than 47,000 Red 2 calls, Mr Brown said.

Between April and October EEAST received 101,395 emergency calls in Norfolk, compared to 91,541 calls during the same period in 2015.

'We are getting to more of these patients quicker compared to last year,' Mr Brown said.

The map explained

The map on has been designed using figures from the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust, which have been obtained by the Freedom of Information Act. The figures are broken down per postcode into the Red 1 and Red 2 categories, when fast responses are most important. The trust has not released figures in the areas where there have been less than 100 Red 1 responses, because it says this would breach patient confidentiality.