Terrified Out of Hours Service

If you need the Police in an emergency, you call 999. If you need to contact the Police for any other business that isn’t life threatening or dangerous, you can call 101.

Similarly, if you need an Ambulance for a medical life or death emergency, you call 999. If you need non-urgent medical advice, you can call 111.

111 is a private contract that is split into dozens of sectors across the county. So the company that answers a 111 call in Devon will be a different company from the one that answers a call in Birmingham.

The tag line for 111 is that you can ring for medical advice……but we few in the Ambulance Service no this is rubbish!

We know this because we have attended people’s addresses, using blue lights and sirens to get there, when they have rang 111 to ask some advice about medication and they have triaged it as appropriate for an ambulance!

Let me explain. When you call the Ambulance Service on 999, you get through to a non-clinical call taker called an Emergency Medical Dispatcher. There medical knowledge is no better than that of a good first aider, but they use a robust triaging system to quickly and effectively decide if the call is immediately life threatening, or can be given a lower priority in order to allow precious ambulance resources to attend the most serious calls first (if you’ve read my blog, you’ll know that people do ring 999 for very un-serious things!).

When you ring 111, you get through to a non-clinical call taker who has in front of them, a screen with a series of questions to ask, your answers to these questions determine what the recommended care pathway is; self care, telephone call with a Nurse, visit and out of hours Doctor, or they can dispatch an ambulance. You don’t get advice when you ring 111, you get triaged!

I should note here, that sometimes, people ring 111 when 999 would have been entirely appropriate – I’ve attended 111 calls where the patient is barely breathing, where a child has a broken leg and a man was having a massive heart attack! My ‘beef’ is when 111 send us to calls that we don’t need to be at:

An elderly man had been suffering a nasty cough for 3 days, his wife thought he had a chest infection, so, one Sunday morning, she rang 111 to speak to a Doctor about getting some antibiotics. She was bombarded with dozens of questions about everything from whether his was bleeding from his anus or if he’d travelled to Africa and may have contracted Ebola. Eventually, 111 told her they would send an Ambulance. This terrified this poor old lady, she thought her husband only had a chest infection, but in fact, he must be seriously ill if they’re sending a blue light ambulance!

-We get the call “85 year old male, Chest Pain and Short of Breath” it’s coded as a Red 2, which is the code for the life threatening calls. So, we do our thing – blue lights, sirens and radio coms – arrive at the address to find our gentleman in bed most definitely not short of breath and not complaining of any chest pain at all .

We get told the story by his wife, and to my ears, it sounds like he has a chest infection and needs to speak to a Doctor about getting some antibiotics. We give him a thorough check over with all the tests to rule out a heart attack, severe infection/blood poisoning, shock or other concerning stuff and it was all fine. So we rang the out of hours Doctors (we have a special number that we can use to directly request a Doctor) to arrange for a home visit.

Time taken for us to drive to the address, assess the patient, complete the paperwork and wait for a callback from a Doctor: 55 minutes.

Time speaking with a Doctor (who agreed with my medical impression): 4 minutes.

That was an hour that an emergency ambulance was unavailable because somehow, that man’s chest infection triaged as an immediate life threat.

This isn’t an isolated incident, sadly. Here’s a list of calls that I’ve been sent on where people have rang 111 and unexpectedly ended up with a blue light ambulance. Ready?

  • Lady wanting to know if she can take Aspirin for a headache
  • Man who hurt his hand three weeks ago and wanted some pain relief
  • Lady with a painful elbow (we were told she was having a stroke)
  • Man who’s back was sore after bending to pick up some laundry (came to us as chest pain)
  • Baby who had a cough and parents wanted some advice
  • Earache

And the absolutely pinnacle in my extensive experience of inappropriate calls:

41 year old man who rang 111 in the middle of the night to see if there was a late night pharmacy anywhere where he could buy some cough syrup. For his cough. This coded as a Red 2 for Chest Pain.

Every single one of those was appropriate for 111. These people did exactly what they should have done, and yet, they each ended up with an ambulance being sent to their houses with blue lights flashing. I didn’t need to take any of these people to hospital,but if you look, that’s at least 7 hours of my time taken up with nonsense. 7 hours during which time someone may be having a stroke, someone may have fallen down the stairs and been found unconscious, there may have been a serious car crash where someone is trapped, someone’s baby may have stopped breathing.

All we can do is report it back, but bare in mind, if you ring the out of hours provider in your area, it may be more than advice that you get!

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