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Panic at call centre overwhelms ambulance service

Posted on Jul 26 2009
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Overstretched ambulance crews are needlessly attending emergency call-outs from people wrongly advised to dial 999 by the Government’s swine flu hotline.
One paramedic said he had raced to four unnecessary calls in one 12-hour shift on Friday.
None of those he attended needed emergency treatment but all had been told to dial 999 after ringing the flu hotline for an assessment.
Overstretched: Ambulance crews are attending call-outs which are not emergencies
It is feared that a combination of unqualified staff and a series of vague questions at the start of the telephone assessment are to blame.
The situation was revealed after the paramedic, from East Midlands Ambulance Service, rang the flu line from the home of a 55-year-old woman in Nottingham whose daughter had been advised to ring the emergency services.
By chance his call was answered by a Mail on Sunday reporter working at the Teleperformance call centre in Leicestershire. He told the reporter: ‘This lady doesn’t need an ambulance, she just needs the drugs.’
He added: ‘This is the fourth today. Four call-outs to people who think they have swine flu and have been told to ring an ambulance.’
The reporter explained what had happened to the team leader, Adam, who was clearly very busy.
All the agents at the centre said they had referred callers to 999. There are fears seriously ill patients could be put at risk while ambulances are diverted needlessly.
As our investigation found, one worker at the centre, Brian, admitted he had instructed all six of his callers to ring 999 ‘because that’s what the computer tells me to do’.
At the start of each call, the workers have to ask 11 vaguely worded questions to assess whether the suspected swine flu victim is in need of emergency treatment.
An affirmative answer to any of these questions, which include ‘Are they breathing irregularly?’, immediately leads the staff to a screen that says: ‘Assessment Complete – Dial 999.’
An ambulance worker, who asked not to be identified, said: ‘If you ask someone if they have difficulty breathing, they might say yes, even if they just have a blocked-up nose. That makes it a high priority call.
'It would be better if they employed medically qualified people who were able to ask follow-up questions.’
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘Staff in the call centres have to ask certain questions to make sure anyone who needs emergency treatment gets it. We are keeping an eye on this and how often it’s happening and are talking to the ambulance trusts.
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