Fewer 999 ambulance calls will be classed as life-threatening and needing a super-fast response, as part of the biggest shake-up in the service in 40 years.
The move by the NHS in England – and agreed by ministers – will result in about 8% of call-outs being classed as needing the quickest response.
Currently half of call-outs are, but many could wait longer.
NHS bosses said the changes would save lives.
They said the plans would result in the sickest patients getting urgent treatment more quickly.
The changes have been backed by medical experts after being carefully piloted over the past 18 months.
For example, in one of the pilot sites, cardiac arrest patients received a response 30 seconds quicker than they did previously. If this was repeated across the country, it could save 250 lives.
No risk to patients
Under the changes, call handlers will also be given four minutes before they need to send out a crew to assess what the patient needs – currently they have only 60 seconds.
Combined with fewer patients being classed as life-threatening, the pilots suggest this will create an efficient system and will put no patients at risk.
But it does mean some patients who should have received an eight minute response, such as those who have suffered a stroke, will now wait 18 minutes on average.
However, doctors argue what is more important is that they get the right treatment in hospital – and this will now be more closely measured under the new system of targets.
Prof Keith Willett, of NHS England, said one of the problems with the current system was that crews were being unnecessarily dispatched to “stop the clock”.
“This has led to the inefficient use of ambulances, with the knock-on effect of hidden waits,” he explained.
These hidden waits are essentially where a first responder bike or car arrives when an ambulance is needed.
Currently an estimated one million people a year – one in four of those who need transporting to hospital – find themselves in this situation.
Under the changes:
- 8% of calls will be classed as life-threatening with an average response time of seven minutes – currently 50% are, but crews have been failing to hit their eight-minute target. This group includes cardiac arrests and trauma injuries
- 48% will be classed as an emergency with an average response time of 18 minutes set – this category includes the likes of stroke patients who could have expected an eight-minute response previously
- The remainder will be classed as urgent or non-urgent and should expect an average response time of 120 and 180 minutes respectively, this could include people with stomach pain and back pain
The changes will be rolled out across the service by the autumn after pilots in three of the 10 ambulance services.
Wales has already introduced a similar system and, in Scotland, some similar pilots are being run.
Source: Health bbc