Northern Ireland public urged to consider pressures on Ambulance Service before calling 999
The Ambulance Service has urged people to only phone 999 for the most serious medical emergencies after encountering "a sustained period of increased demand" over Christmas.
Emergency calls were up 50% on the same holiday period last year, with voluntary and private ambulances drafted in to provide extra capacity.
The NI Ambulance Service (NIAS) said that while it will continue to "prioritise the most serious calls to get a response to the sickest patients as soon as possible", calls for less serious emergencies would still be subject to significant delays.
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan MLA said: "The stresses and strains on medical staff are becoming more and more evident every month.
"There used to be what were called winter pressures on the health services, but now those pressures are growing each month, not just in wintertime.
"When I speak to health staff, they tell you that each passing month has been the worst they've experienced. The issue obviously lies in the demand for services versus the means to respond to them. People of course need access to medical advice, care and treatment. And if they feel their problem warrants a trip to hospital, that's fine, but these strains could be alleviated by giving greater responsibilities to GP practices or more community based resources."
The NIAS said that for less serious problems people should contact their GP or local out-of-hours services in the first instance. It also urged the public to consider alternative transport to an emergency department or minor injury unit for lesser injuries and complaints.
"We would take this opportunity to remind the public that arrival at an emergency department by ambulance does not mean you will be seen or treated more quickly than self-presentation," it said.
However, the pressures on GPs and out-of-hours services are already being seriously stretched.
On Tuesday the Southern Trust was forced to draft in extra GPs as waiting times for out-of-hours services soared as high as 34 hours.
"We contacted GPs to ask them for additional clinician support and we are very grateful for the extra support they provided which has greatly improved waiting times in out of hours down to six hours for a call back," the trust said.
The Southern Trust also stressed that the most ill patients received priority treatment.
However, Dr Tom Black of the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland GP Committee said drafting in additional GPs would have a "domino effect" on other front line medical services.
"We've been very clear that the Southern and Western Trusts out-of-hours GP services have been under pressure for more than a year now," he said.
"That's because there's too few GPs in Northern Ireland and we've reported both services to the General Medical Council and both are under investigation from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority."
Mr Durkan agreed that a shortage of medical staff was contributing heavily to backlogs on front line services such as urgent care facilities and ambulance provision.
"Of course there's an issue there. We have a shortage of both doctors and nurses," he said.
"An increase in training places is what's required and the new medical school based in Derry will help solve this problem."