The country’s top emergency doctor says the NHS is breaking its “basic agreement” to treat the sickest in a timely manner as 999 callers in England face appalling ambulance response times in the wake of a crisis in emergency care and ambulance services.
In an interview with The Guardian, The Royal College of Emergency Medicine president, Dr. Katherine Henderson, said she is forced to sound the alarm over the “staggeringly bad” and “unacceptable” delays in emergency care. She is concerned that the mounting crisis is putting lives at risk as patients with life-threatening conditions wait far too long for ambulance services.
Severe Pressure At the Root of an Escalating Crisis
Hospitals in England are facing enormous staff shortages, a crisis in social care, and unprecedented demand from patients coming forward after COVID-related absences. “The current situation is breaking the workforce and breaking our hearts,” Henderson said.
With the sustained period of soaring demand, hospitals are struggling to accommodate patients streaming in to Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments while facing challenges in discharging patients amid the social care crisis.
Patients are forced to wait on trolleys in hospital corridors, with healthcare staff often resulting to desperate measures. According to Dr Henderson, “We’ve all started having to use office areas and storage spaces that you can quickly convert into a cubicle.”
In other “surreal” instances, patients are having the entirety of their care delivered in an ambulance. “We’ve almost moved emergency medicine into the [hospital] car park,” Dr Henderson said.
The outcome is ambulance handover delays that prevent the emergency care crews from getting back on the road to respond to 999 callers. “The colossal demands on the ambulance service in the south-west are being mirrored across the UK. Dealing with repeated peaks of pressure with a depleted workforce is taking a huge toll,” Helga Pile, the deputy head of health at UNISON, said.
The Scale of the Crisis
A survey by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine paints a concerning picture of the state of emergency care and ambulance services. An estimated 80% of clinical leads across England’s emergency departments reported holding ambulances daily.
In response to findings that 55% of clinical leads said their longest patient stay was more than 24 hours, Dr Henderson said:
“The fact that over 50% of departments have people over 24 hours … is staggeringly bad.” Even worse, 23% of clinical leads reported patient stays longer than 48 hours.
“There’s no clinical reason why a patient should be there, really, more than six hours. The fact that there’s anybody in the more-than-48-hour category is just unbelievably appalling”
Figures from data on the performance of NHS England show:
- Ambulance response times for most urgent incidents (life-threatening injuries or illnesses) dropped from a record high of 9 minutes and 35 seconds in March 2022 to 9 minutes and 2 seconds in April 2022.
- The response times for emergency calls (strokes, epilepsy, burns, etc.) averaged 51 minutes and 22 seconds in April 2022, down from a record 1 hour, 1 minute and 3 seconds in the previous month.
- Ambulances took 2 hours, 38 minutes and 41 seconds to respond to urgent calls (diabetes, non-severe burns, late stages of labour, etc.) in April 2022. The longest time on record for the category is 3 hours, 28 minutes and 13 seconds in March 2022.
Reacting to the scale of the ambulance wait time crisis, Dr Henderson said, “It’s not acceptable…It’s a very, very significant loss of that basic agreement with the public about the NHS, which is that if you dial 999 and you need an ambulance – which an old person who has fallen downstairs does need – you’ll get one in a timely way.
“And we’ve broken that contract with the public. It feels shaming to me that we’re in this situation. We’ve got elderly, vulnerable people at home who need an ambulance … and we can’t get them in.”
Political Unwillingness to Take Action
Dr Henderson argues that “The true barrier to tackling this crisis is political unwillingness.” Her sentiments are echoed by the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper MP, who said ministers had “turned a blind eye” to the ongoing crisis in emergency care and ambulance services that was “leading to devastating consequences for patients and their families.”
However, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said, “The government is absolutely committed to supporting the NHS and improving patient experience. Claims to the contrary are entirely baseless.”
Meanwhile, whilst the Government and medical professions engage in such arguments, the nation continues to suffer.
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