Ambulances snarled up by long patient handover times at busy hospitals in Northern Ireland
Nearly 8,000 ambulances were forced to wait more an hour during patient handovers at Northern Ireland hospitals in the past year, it has emerged.
New Department of Health figures reveal that 7,973 ambulances took more than one hour to turnaround - and 496 took more than two hours.
The turnaround is the length of time it takes an ambulance crew to pass on patients to hospital staff, and clean and replenish the vehicle before the next call.
Ulster Unionist health spokeswoman, Jo-Anne Dobson MLA, said the "appalling" length of time paramedics were forced to wait with patients at hospitals delayed them from responding to other emergency calls.
She added that a key cause of the problem was a shortage of beds. "These figures are outrageous," she commented.
"When patients arrive at hospital, many can't afford to be waiting for excessive periods of time in the back of an ambulance vehicle while the hospital scrambles to find a bed or trolley to put them in.
"Many people call for the Ambulance Service when they are in a medical emergency and, whilst our brilliant paramedics will be able to stabilise them, it's essential that they are quickly admitted to hospital to receive the required medical care.
"Any delay can have major implications as it is medically proven that patients who are seen quickly have better outcomes than those who have to wait.
"I believe this latest revelation of appalling ambulance turnaround times further illustrates the unprecedented crisis currently engulfing almost every aspect of our local health service.
"Turnaround delays can also have an impact on overall response times as ambulances are held back from taking on their next 999 call."
Mrs Dobson continued: "Recently the Ulster Unionist Party revealed that the Ambulance Service target to arrive at the scene of emergency calls was missed over both of the last two years.
"Last year the average response time to Category A calls - those considered to be immediately life-threatening - was 10 minutes and 17 seconds, despite the target being eight minutes.
"The Health Minister needs to realise that reducing patient handover delays requires whole-system working. A major contributory factor to these appalling turnaround times is a shortage of beds for new admissions.
"A key cause of this are other patients who are ready to be discharged but who have to stay because no care home or package of support in the community is available for them."
In response to the MLA's comments, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "Ms Dobson has misrepresented my Department's full reply to her question which clearly explains that the turnaround time includes the crew remaining with the patient until they are handed over to the relevant clinical personnel, as well as the time to clean and replenish the ambulance for the next call. "Health and social care is not complacent about turnaround times, and hospital ambulance liaison officers from the Ambulance Service are deployed in all major Emergency Departments to ensure effective communication between the Emergency Department and ambulance control, particularly at peak periods when Emergency Departments are under pressure."