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Ambulance Delays - Are They Endangering Patients’ Lives?

The South West of England is currently being hit hard with ambulance delays, notably delays in the time taken for ambulances to arrive to patients in emergency circumstances and the time it takes ambulances to hand over patients to accident and emergency departments at hospitals, which results in ambulances being unable to respond to other emergency calls.

These delays have been mainly attributed to the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the under-funding of the NHS, and staff shortages. It is understandable that the NHS is under extreme pressures but unfortunately this problem is only likely to get worse as we head into the winter months.

The NHS target response time for ambulance for category 1 calls for a life-threatening condition, such as a cardiac arrest, is 7 minutes and 90% of ambulances should arrive within 15 minutes. Category 2, which relate to serious conditions such as strokes or chest pain, has a target response time of 18 minutes.

In June 2022 a report conducted by Devon County Council’s Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee into the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWAST) revealed that SWAST had the longest category 1 and category 2 average response rate in the country at 11 minutes and 66 minutes respectively.

There are concerns nationally that longer waiting times for ambulances is having a dangerous impact on patient safety. Research conducted by the BBC revealed that there were 551 serious safety reports filed by ambulance staff in England between March 2021 and February 2022, up from 312 in the same period before the pandemic. This figure included 201 unintended or unexpected deaths, up from 78 in the 2019/20 period.

Last year, Shaun Mansell died from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage after the ambulance attended his address 6 hours late after a neighbour called 999 reporting that Shaun could not walk and was suffering from shortness of breath. A serious investigation report was conducted by West Midlands Ambulance Service and an inquest into his death found a gross failure of care, although it did not reach a conclusion of neglect as it was impossible to know whether he would have survived but for the delayed response.

However, it will not necessarily be negligent for the ambulance service to fail to see a patient within the NHS target response times by national guidelines or if the ambulance service experienced an unavoidable delay.

Nonetheless, a failure by an emergency medical dispatcher to correctly categorise a patient’s condition based on the information given could result in a medical negligence claim. Similarly, a failure by paramedics to recognise a feature of the patient’s presentation, thereby failing to ensure they receive the urgent medical attention they need, could result in liability, as could refusing to admit a patient to hospital when needed could result in a potential claim if this causes avoidable injury.

Darren White, Head of the Medical Negligence Department at Dunn & Baker Solicitors, commented that he was now seeing more enquiries and cases relating to potential negligence against ambulance service trusts as a result of delays, staff failing to diagnose or misdiagnosing conditions, and failing to take patients to hospital for further investigations. 

If you believe that you or a family member have suffered negligent treatment by the ambulance service, please contact our Medical Negligence team for a confidential initial discussion and advice.

Exeter 01392 285000    Cullompton 01884 33818 

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