Increase in hospitals turning away ambulances

The number of times hospital A&E units in England have had to close their doors to ambulances has almost doubled this winter compared with the previous three, new research from the Nuffield Trust has revealed.

The authors say that the extra time paramedics are having to spend on the road as a result is a factor in the service’s inability to meet its targets for urgent requests for an ambulance.

The authors of the report, ‘Winter Insight 3: The Ambulance Service’, say the efficient performance and smooth running of the ambulance service are vital to the operation of every part of the health service, from care homes to general practice to hospital care. 

The research finds that pressures facing the ambulance service are growing at an even faster rate than those facing hospitals. In the last five years, for example, the number of category A calls (the most serious) resulting in an ambulance arriving at the scene of an incident has increased by 7.4% year on year (from 2.5 million in 2011/12 to 3.3 million in 2015/16) – whereas over the same period there has been an average annual increase of 2.1% in the number of emergency admissions to hospital, and a 1.6% average annual increase in the number of attendances at A&E.

As a result, in a new analysis of ambulance trusts’ performance against targets, the report reveals that despite their importance, the three main urgent response time targets have been met in only six out of the last 49 months, and none have been met since May 2015. The most recent figures published, covering January this year, show that just 67% of ‘Red 1’ calls for ambulances (which include those for cardiac arrest patients who are not breathing and do not have a pulse), and only 58% of Red 2 calls (which are serious, but less immediately time-critical), received a response within eight minutes – significantly off the target of 75%.

Of the 233,472 Category A Calls received in January this year, at least 95% should have had a response within 19 minutes – but in fact 29,000 calls did not receive a response within this time, meaning only 88% of responses met the target.

The report sheds new light on the reasons ambulance trusts are finding it so difficult to meet these response times.  Although organisations such as the National Audit Office have provided extensive evidence of the long waits ambulances face before being able to hand over their patients at A&E departments, there has been little focus to date on what is often the ultimate outcome of these delays - the decision by a hospital in ‘exceptional circumstances’ to implement a ‘divert’ from its A&E, when ambulance trusts are instructed to take patients to other hospitals instead. Our analysis shows that while these diverts were implemented an average of 249 times over the three winters 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16, 478 were instigated over the same period this winter, a virtual doubling (see note 5). 

Five hospital trusts accounted for over half of all the 478 diverts reported this winter – four in the North of England commissioning region (Pennine Acute Hospitals, Northumbria Healthcare, County Durham and Darlington, South Tyneside), and one in the Midlands (Worcestershire Acute Hospitals).

Richard Webber, national spokesperson the College of Paramedics, said: “Diverts from A&E departments have an impact on paramedics’ ability to reach seriously ill and injured patients in an appropriate time frame. While we are sympathetic to hospitals that are forced to implement diverts so that they don’t reach dangerous levels of overcrowding, in non-urban areas in particular the extra time taken to reach more distant A&E departments is significant. There is a ‘double whammy’ in that not only do crews have to drive further away once a divert is implemented – once that’s happened, an ambulance crew will then also need to travel further to get back to their own area to respond to the next emergency call.”

Commenting on the findings, report lead author Prof John Appleby, Nuffield Trust chief economist, said: “There’s rightly been a lot of focus recently on the delays ambulance crews face in being able to hand over their most seriously ill patients at A&E – but what our research has uncovered is the huge increase in the number of times this winter ambulance trusts have been told that they must take patients to another hospital altogether, because an A&E unit simply doesn’t have the capacity to accept any more patients. Hospitals have implemented these ambulance diverts almost 500 times this winter, double the average of the previous three winters, and the extra time crews are having to spend on the road is not helping the ambulance service’s ability to meet its response time targets.”