AMBULANCE staff in Wiltshire have been sent to patients with minor ailments by a private company which is classing the calls as emergencies.
As a result South Western Ambulance Service has put on extra ambulance crews to cope with increased demand which the Adver understands to be 30 extra 999 calls a day in Wiltshire and the same in Avon and Gloucestershire. While ambulance workers fear it could affect their ability to get to genuine emergencies, NHS bosses have said they are “teething problems.”
The change has come about due to a non-emergency telephone number – 111 – being introduced in April, which will replace NHS Direct.
Harmoni, part of the country’s biggest care provider, Care UK, won the contract to run the 111 service in Wiltshire and last week began testing it when people called their GP surgeries at evenings and weekends.
The workers at Harmoni are not clinicians and undergo six weeks’ training on a computerised system that tells them which questions to ask callers.
A concerned paramedic working in Wiltshire said: “It’s causing havoc. People are ringing 111 and the calls are not being prioritised. “
"We are going out to vast amounts of calls that don’t warrant a 999 response, including patients with a sore throat, patients stuck in a chair, patients with earache and a painful wrist.
“We are picking up calls that are completely inappropriate and we are having to respond with lights and sirens on.
“Some of the patients concerned are astonished that an ambulance has turned up. “They said they wanted to speak to a doctor or get advice.”
The paramedic said in the majority of 111 calls, ambulance staff did not take patients to hospital but referred them to their GP.
The paramedic said: “While crews are dealing with these inappropriate cases they have to do observations on the patients which commits them to be at the scene for a considerable time.
“My concern is people who need a genuine 999 response – such as someone with chest pain – might not get it in time. “The increase in 999 calls from 111 has been huge and the calls don’t warrant our attendance.
“If it carries on like this people will die.”
Unison’s Great Western branch secretary Jo Fowles said: “The provision of 111 has done exactly what we predicted.
“It’s not producing an efficient service, it’s not providing good, patient-focused care and it is putting huge pressure on the ambulance service.
“The ambulance service is ramping up its response so nobody suffers, but this is the NHS covering the mistakes of private health care and isn’t a long-term solution. Unison is calling for the commissioners to give the contract back to the NHS.”
Harmoni, which will be paid £6.5m to provide 111 in Wiltshire for the next five years, was told not to comment by NHS Wiltshire. ‘
111 will provide better service for patients’
South Western Ambulance Service spokesman John Oliver said the service had employed extra call handlers and ambulance crews when the testing for 111 began on February 19.
And it also has an enhanced paramedic based in the 111 control room in Bristol providing advice on calls that can be handled by the 111 service.
He said there had been an increase in call volumes following the partial introduction of the 111 service.
Mr Oliver said: “The introduction of a new service inevitably involved some uncertainty and potential disruption.
“However, SWASFT and the wider healthcare service, has worked hard to ensure that patients continue to receive high quality treatment and advice however they access it. “We are confident that the 111 service will lead to better service and outcomes for patients, including freeing up 999 resources for those suffering immediate medical emergencies.”
A spokesman for NHS Wiltshire, which awarded the 111 contract to Harmoni, said: “With a new service such as this there can often be teething problems, but we are working closely with the provider, local GPs, the ambulance service and other out of hours staff to ensure that any feedback is acted upon promptly.
"This will be used to continuously improve the service and iron out any remaining issues.”