Got An Itch? Can't Sleep? Don't Ring 999

GOT an itch? Can t sleep? Need someone to talk to? Don t call an ambulance. The number of people with relatively minor problems who call an emergency ambulance has rocketed in the past five years, according to figures released last week. In June 2003, amb

GOT an itch? Can't sleep? Need someone to talk to? Don't call an ambulance.

The number of people with relatively minor problems who call an emergency ambulance has rocketed in the past five years, according to figures released last week.

In June 2003, ambulance crews in the east of England responded to 35,145 emergency calls, but by last month that number had risen by more than 10,000 to 46,090, up more than 30 per cent.

But response times are not helped by frivolous calls that could divert crews from patients in urgent need. Recent calls included:


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* A young woman rang 999 and asked the crew to carry her boyfriend upstairs and put him to bed because she was too drunk to lift him

* A woman who had a cotton bud stuck in her ear dialled 999 because she had no money for a taxi.

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* A man who cut his finger on a door handle

* A woman who needed someone to talk to because she was bored

* A man who had had toothache for a week

* A woman who had ear ache

* A man who had an itch

* Someone who had difficulty getting to sleep

Rob Lawrence, chief locality officer for the East of England Ambulance Service (EEAS), said that, while the number of people with serious problems had increased in line with an increasing and ageing population, the more significant rise was in people with more minor problems.

"We are seeing more and more people calling 999 who could get more appropriate treatment elsewhere in the NHS," he added.

"Were there really 10,000 more people in need of an emergency ambulance last month than the June of five years ago? We don't for one moment want to put off people with genuine emergencies from calling us, but with calls seemingly on a never-ending upward curve we need people to think about whether they really need an ambulance before making the call. This is particularly relevant over the summer, when the number of calls peaks during hot weather.

"Our crews and responders are striving to meet the most challenging ambulance response times in the world, and we need the public on our side to help us reach those most in need of our help as quickly as possible."

Extra investment in the EEAS from the primary care trusts which commission the service across Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk has seen average response times cut from eight minutes and 42 seconds in March to seven minutes and 28 seconds last month.

Since April 1 this year ambulance response times have been measured from the moment the 999 call is connected to control rooms, as opposed to the previous system when the clock began to tick only after the patient's location and condition were known.

The target of reaching 75 per cent of potentially life-threatening calls within eight minutes remains, but the eight minutes now really means eight minutes.

Mr Lawrence said: "Last month, almost half of our patients did not need to be taken to hospital, indicating there is much scope for people to use other parts of the NHS for more minor problems."

INFORMATION: There are a number of options available if patients cannot treat themselves, including calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647, or the local GP out-of-hours service (usually via THE GP surgery number). Both of these telephone-based services will divert patients to 999 if an ambulance is required. NHS walk-in centres, pharmacies and local minor injuries units can also help.

However, people should not hesitate to ring 999 or visit A&E immediately for any of these problems: suspected heart attack, chest pains, unconsciousness, heavy blood loss, suspected broken bones, deep wounds or head injuries, or difficulty breathing, the ambulance service says.

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