Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


How many emergency calls genuinely need an ambulance?


Nursing Times’ student nurse blogger Katrina Michelle Rowan on her four week placement with paramedics

I have just finished my first four week elective with the paramedics. I absolutely loved this placement, being out and about and never knowing what was coming next was something I relished.

I got to see patients in a variety of situations, with a broad range of illnesses and was exposed to vastly differing situations that tested my knowledge and communication skills to the limit.

However, in four weeks I can count on one hand the number of people who genuinely needed an emergency ambulance.

My mentor and I discussed this after being called out to an elderly gentleman who wanted to have someone to stay with him and keep him company. My mentor was rather annoyed at being called out to this (the call had come through as a fall), which I fully understood. My mentor’s point was an emergency ambulance had been diverted from real emergencies to deal with a lonely elderly man - not exactly appropriate use of resources.

My mentor said he wished the ambulance service charged for calls such as this as it was a massive misuse of the emergency services. Superficially, I can agree with this. If you just look at the fact that someone had called an ambulance because they were lonely then charging them for misuse of resources can be justified.

But if you scratch below the service, a little bit of questioning showed how the man’s wife had died two months earlier. They had been together 50 years; he was quite literally lost without her and unable to cope. Is it appropriate to charge a man who was obviously grieving and depressed?

It is easy to understand why paramedics question whether people should be charged for inappropriate use of resources when they have been called to someone who was lonely. But where do you draw the line? Who makes the decision about what is appropriate or not?

A large number of the calls I attended during my four weeks seemed to be a result of social problems rather than medical emergencies. We were called to a girl who obviously just wanted her mother to pay her some attention, we were called to a family gathering that had got out of hand and punches were being thrown. We were called to countless drunks. I spent a lot of time in police company as they also got called to many of the situations I was attending.

We were called to many cases where the patient didn’t need an ambulance at all. These calls tended to be out of nine to five hours. The patient could have easily got a relative to take them to A&E, or even waited to the morning and contacted their GP, or gone to a walk in centre.

From my short experience, those patients who had called the ambulance when it wasn’t necessary seemed to have an unrealistic belief and expectation of the service. There was an expectation that a solution to the problem, condition or situation would be offered immediately, that they would be given priority and offered immediate treatment once in A&E.

When told they could be waiting four hours they seemed quite surprised.

Yet those calls that were a genuine emergency – and we did have some – was when I was completely blown away by the skill, professionalism and quick thinking of the paramedics. Out of hospital care at the best of times can be challenging. The situations we found these patients in ranged from having to trek through a muddy field in pouring rain, to attending an assault victim with head injuries in a tower block.

These situations highlighted to me the expertise of the paramedics. They can go from a mundane job to a job where their skills are tested to the limit.

For those patients I attended who genuinely needed an ambulance, the care was outstanding. I don’t have an answer for the inappropriate use of the ambulance service, and in many cases I do believe this service is used inappropriately.

One paramedic believed a zero tolerance policy should be enforced. I personally couldn’t envision how that would work effectively. Perhaps more appropriate screening of the calls that are made to the emergency service?

I think education and charging are options that could be considered, but the paramedics deal with situations that are multi-faceted and in many cases are not as simple as they firstly appear. It is a difficult situation to resolve but one that certainly needs looking at.

I loved my four weeks with the paramedics and if other students can manage to facilitate a paramedic experience, or even spend a day with them, then I totally recommend it.


Readers' comments (4)

  • So.... most 999 calls are not real emergencies? Clearly we have too many ambulances and a better telephone triage would let us close stations, reduce the fleet and axe jobs. Yay! Another easy saving.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Get over yourself Anonymous!! This is an interesting and well written article about a service which is misused by the number of people who call 999 inappropriately. Katrina isn't suggesting that we get rid of it if you bothered to read the article before writing your pointless comment!!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I have been a long time reader of written by an ex nurse turned paramedic who is just returned to the nursing ranks. But the older posts are very interesting to read.

    The author also has 2 books about his time as a paramedic.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • My partners parents are both elderly and in failing health. Every time they have a medical emergency they fail to call an ambulance, even though to do so would have been appropriate. (I'm talking days of severe abdominal pain that when the patient was hospitalised resulted in an emergency operation and a two week stay. Plus a fall with nasty lacerations while on anticoagulant medication.)

    The reason; they don't want to be a bother. They've heard of people wasting the service's time and don't want to exacerbate the situation.

    There are stupid abusers of the system, but penalties for erroneous calls could put people who need help off from calling.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.