Texts are sent instead of ambulances in 999 crisis

By Graeme Culliford



dmg media (UK)



TEXT messages are being sent to 999 callers instead of ambulances because of a shortage of crews. Six out of ten ambulance trusts in England admit they now send SMS alerts to callers when a medical team is at first unavailable. The trusts that do this insist it happens only when the patient is deemed low priority, or to enable ‘welfare checks’ at times of extreme pressure. A total of 511 people died before reaching A&E in England last year because of breakdowns in the emergency response system and ambulance shortages, according to a recent report. This is more than double the 220 who died in similar circumstances the previous year. An MoS probe into ambulance texts began after an elderly Arsenal fan collapsed with breathing problems at a north London station after last Saturday’s home game. A passer-by called 999 and was told an ambulance would arrive within 20 to 45 minutes. Twenty minutes later a text was sent to the caller’s phone saying none were available and the patient could be ‘given water’. London Ambulance Trust Service said later: ‘Our records show that the patient had left the scene of their own accord before the ambulance arrived, which was within an hour of the initial call. ‘We only text when appropriate and when a patient is not in a lifethreatening emergency.’ Last week East of England Ambulance Service admitted spending £129,000 on taxis to take 27 patients on category 1 calls – needing lifesaving intervention or resuscitation – to hospital. A further 281 cabs were used for category 2 patients who had suffered conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, sepsis or burns. The trust is now using text messages to respond to calls on ‘specified occasions such as updating callers and conducting welfare checks during times of extreme pressure’. North East Ambulance Service will send texts only to ‘back up what the health adviser has said on the phone’, to advise people ‘to call back if anything has changed’ and to ‘acknowledge that we have an ambulance planned and if there is an estimated wait time’. North West Ambulance Service said it may text to warn of delay when there is high demand or industrial action is taking place. It added: ‘We don’t send a text in lieu of an emergency response. We only close calls after a patient assessment through a call handler or clinician.’ South East Coast Ambulance Service said: ‘We use SMS to keep patients informed and to advise if we are facing high demand or while they are awaiting a call back from a clinician.’ East Midlands Ambulance Service said: ‘During periods of intense demand, a text may be sent to less seriously unwell patients to reassure them an ambulance will be sent as soon as possible and advising them to only call us back if the condition has worsened. ‘This is to help keep the phone lines free for calls of a life-threatening nature.’ South Western Ambulance Service, Yorkshire Ambulance Service, South Central Ambulance Service and West Midlands Ambulance Service all denied sending texts to callers.