Ambulances are taking longer to reach patients with life-threatening conditions after receiving a 999 call, NHS performance data reveals.
In some parts of England ambulances are taking almost two minutes longer than two years ago to get to patients who have suffered a stroke or heart attack or been stabbed, for example.
Response times deteriorated in nine of the 11 regional NHS ambulance services between December 2011 and December last year, the latest performance figures published by NHS England show.
Health charities warned that the lengthening waiting times could result in some patients dying. “Every second counts if someone’s having a heart attack or stroke. Sadly every seven minutes someone in the UK dies from a heart attack”, said Amy Thompson, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.
The East of England ambulance service saw the biggest rise in response times for category A calls, involving the most seriously unwell patients. Its median response time went up over the two years from 295.2 seconds to 405 seconds – an increase of 109.8 seconds.
That ambulance service has been beset by problems over the length of time it takes to reach some patients, prompting criticism from local MPs, patients and health unions. Its interim chairman, Geoff Harris, stood down on Tuesday just before a Care Quality Commission report said that it had not done enough to improve response times to 999 calls.
A local coroner last year described ambulance crews as “chaotic” after presiding over the inquest into the death of three-month-old Bella Hellings. Paramedics took much longer than national targets require to reach her home in Thetford, Norfolk.
The service is also under scrutiny over the fact that it took an ambulance two hours to get to Paul Nelson, a 26-year-old chef who collapsed at home in Blakeney, Norfolk, and later died of a brain haemorrhage.
In the north-east of England the response time for 999 calls increased by 51 seconds from 330 to 384 seconds while West Midlands ambulance service vehicles are now taking an extra 49.8 seconds to reach emergency patients compared with two years ago and those in the South East Coast ambulance service some 49.2 seconds more.
Only two ambulance services improved their response time: in the South Central area (34.8 seconds faster) and the Isle of Wight (15 seconds fewer than in 2011).
Andrew Gwynne, the shadow health minister, said:
“These figures reveal lives being put at risk because of the growing chaos in England’s A&Es,”
“Outside bursting A&E departments, thousands of patients are waiting in the backs of ambulances. The paramedics can’t discharge patients and so can’t answer their next call. People dialling 999 – even for patients in a life-threatening condition – face agonising waits when every second counts.”
Despite being asked to do so, NHS England refused to respond directly to the longer waiting times or explain them, amid concern that the ageing population, cuts to social care and overcrowded A&E units may be factors.
A spokeswoman , which seeks to improve care for patients, said it could not comment on ambulance performance before it took over responsibility for the NHS last April. But she added that performance had improved with seven services, and worsened with only four, since December 2012.
However, she added that: “As eight out of 11 ambulance trusts have not met the standard this month there is clearly more work to be done to make sure people get a consistent, high quality service.”
Ambulance services have to respond to 75% of category A calls within eight minutes. The data shows that the median was less than that in all 11 services in December. Patients should get “a high quality, fast and safe service wherever they live”, she added.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 31st January 2014