Belfast Telegraph

Patients dying as shortage of paramedics at crisis point

Support: Simon Walls
Support: Simon Walls

By Lisa Smyth

Patients are dying while waiting for ambulances as a shortage of paramedics across Northern Ireland reaches crisis point.

It has emerged that ambulances have not been available to attend calls to help seriously ill patients in recent weeks, including a man believed to have suffered a heart attack. Police were tasked to the call instead, but the man was later declared dead.

Front-line PSNI officers, who have basic first aid training and carry simple medical kits, are increasingly being called upon to respond to calls to the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS).

Among the incidents they are being expected to attend in the place of paramedics are stabbings, car accidents and suspected drug overdoses.

It has also emerged that officers who require medical assistance at a scene now have to dial 999 themselves instead of requesting help through their control room.

The measure has been put in place to allow NIAS call handlers to triage incidents more effectively and make best use of the limited number of paramedics and emergency clinicians.

However, it is placing an even greater burden on already overstretched police officers and putting patient safety at risk.

It comes as health bosses here were forced to ask crews from the National Ambulance Service in the Republic to work out of NIAS stations in Newry and Londonderry over the weekend.

While it is not unusual for paramedics to attend and assist at incidents on both sides of the border, it is believed to be the first time crews from the Republic have been based in stations here for a full shift.

An emergency medical technician who was working over the weekend has spoken out about the devastating conditions being endured by NIAS staff, as well as patients desperately waiting for help.

"I've been working for the Ambulance Service for more than 40 years and this is the worst it's ever been," he said. "A few weeks ago there was a young girl who hanged herself and it was about half an hour before an ambulance got there.

"We're being slaughtered, paramedics are going out in rapid response vehicles and are crying out for an ambulance to come and take their patient to hospital because they're in a car.

"When we get there, they're telling us they've been waiting two hours for an ambulance to arrive.

"We're going out to old women who have fallen and been lying on the ground for four hours. I'm being sent out to patients with chest pain even though I shouldn't be because I'm an Emergency Medical Technician, but there just aren't the paramedics to attend. The weekend was the worst I've seen it.

"The bosses put on food for the crews working at the weekend but it was a small sandwich, apple, banana and a carton of juice and you didn't have time to eat it. The other night I was six or seven hours into a shift and I asked for a comfort break and was told no because there was a call I had to go to.

"The first thing I had to do when I got to the person's house was ask to use the toilet. We're working whole shifts without stopping. We're not getting to eat, you're lucky if you get to warm up some soup but most of the time you're called out before you get a chance to eat it.

"We start work at 7.30am and we're sent out on the first call at 7.31am, we don't even get the chance to check the vehicle before we go. We're being worked into the ground but management don't seem to care."

Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said: "It is not uncommon for police officers to be asked to support colleagues in the NIAS and we will continue to ensure that we work together with our blue light emergency services to do everything possible to protect the local community and keep people safe."

An NIAS spokesman said: "PSNI vehicles carry defibrillators and will appropriately be used by NIAS control as a first response to suspected cases of actual or pending cardiac arrest."

He said the average time between arrival of a rapid response vehicle and a vehicle to take a patient to hospital last month was 33 minutes and eight seconds.

He added: "It is entirely appropriate to despatch emergency response teams to chest pain calls. It falls within the clinical practice to deal with such calls."

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