Devon GP warns health care ‘close to collapse’

A Devon GP has told how she was forced to consider driving a baby with low oxygen levels to hospital herself as she waited on hold for an emergency ambulance.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com 

Dr Ruth Down revealed she was held on the phone to the control centre for 15 minutes then had to call back on 999 as the child’s condition got worse.

The GP was again put on hold for several minutes, and she had to work out if the practice’s oxygen cylinder would last long enough so she could drive the baby to hospital.

Dr Down, a partner at Bideford Medical Centre in North Devon, said it was one of many examples which show “how close basic medical care is to collapsing in the UK”.

The case comes as the latest ambulance performance figures shows the South West had the longest average response time in England for the most urgent calls.

South Western Ambulance Service, which covers the region from Cornwall to Gloucestershire, says it has experienced the highest ever sustained demand.

It has highlighted the worst ever queues to hand over patients at hospitals, and says the system-wide problem has a knock-on effect on its performance.

Figures in the summer showed the waiting lists for NHS treatment were the highest ever following the Covid pandemic, with record numbers attending emergency departments.

Dr Down said in a letter to The Guardian newspaper that the incident with the baby was the first time in her 24-year career that she faced “a very real possibility” of not being able to get an emergency ambulance.

Responding to an earlier letter from a consultant about the pressure on the NHS, the doctor said: “The view from primary care is equally grim, with a chronic shortage of social care beds causing delayed hospital discharges, long waits in A&E, and paramedic crews queueing for hours before they can hand their patients over to hospital staff. The end result is exceptional pressure on the ambulance service.

“I work in general practice and had to call an ambulance last week for a baby with low oxygen levels. I phoned ambulance control, the normal process, and was on hold for 15 minutes, at which point I called 999 instead because the baby was deteriorating, only to be placed on hold again for several more minutes, during which I was calculating whether our practice oxygen cylinder would last long enough to transfer the baby to hospital in my car.

“In my 24-year career I have never faced a situation where there was a very real possibility that we would not be able to access an emergency ambulance. I cannot understand how this situation is not headline news and why the government insists that the NHS is not under undue pressure. Sadly, this incident was only one of many examples I could quote which illustrate how close basic medical care is to collapsing in the UK.”

Richard Webber, of the College of Paramedics and a working paramedic, told the BBC that his colleagues “have never before experienced anything like this at this time of the year”.

He added: “Every day services are holding hundreds of 999 calls with no-one to send. The ambulance service is simply not providing the levels of service they should – patients are waiting too long and that is putting them at risk.”

The latest NHS figures show ambulance response times for the South West in October were again the worst in England for the most serious cases, following a similar outcome for September.

It took an average of almost 12 minutes to reach patients with life-threatening injuries or illnesses such as heart attacks, against a target of seven minutes.

The average response time for South Western Ambulance Service, which covers the region from Cornwall to Gloucestershire, was 11 minutes and 48 seconds for category one calls in October. The average for England was nine minutes and 20 seconds.

For less urgent emergencies such as strokes and burns, classed as category two the response time in the South West was much better compared to the other England trusts.

The average for the South Western service was 24 minutes and 25 seconds, against a target of 18 minutes.

That was third best out of the 11 trusts in England, where the overall average response time was 53 minutes and 54 seconds.

A spokesperson from South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust said: “We continue to experience the highest-ever level of sustained demand on our service.

“Our response times are directly affected by the time it takes us to handover patients into busy hospital emergency departments, which is longer than we have ever seen before.

“We are losing many more hours compared with recent years which causes our ambulances to queue outside hospitals and unable to respond to other patients and has an inevitable impact on the service we can provide. This is a health system problem which therefore demands a system solution.

“It is an absolute priority for us and our NHS partners to reduce these delays, so we can be there for our patients, while prioritising those who are most seriously injured and ill.

“Patients who need urgent medical help or advice are encouraged to visit or to call 111, which is free and available 24/7. This will ensure they get the right care, and the ambulance service can focus on those most in need.

“For on-going or non-urgent medical concerns or if they need medicines, people should contact their local GP surgery or a local pharmacy.”

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