New 999 ambulance system under fire

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A New ambulance call-out system, launched in some areas this month, discriminates against the inarticulate and could threaten lives, critics say.

Patient groups and the main health union, Unison, claim that the American- style system, which classes some calls as more urgent than others, discriminates against those with a poor grasp of language. It also assumes, they argue, that thepublic can tell the difference between a drunk in a stupor and a diabetic in a coma.

Both groups have condemned the so-called "Priority Dispatch System".

Under the system, a person dialling 999 is asked pre-set questions about the patient's condition and an operator decides whether it is an immediately life-threatening "Alpha call", to be met in eight minutes, or a less urgent "Beta" case, to be dealt with in 14 minutes in towns and 19 in rural areas.

A woman phoning to say her husband has chest pains, for example, is asked, "Is the patient conscious? Is the patient breathing?" A "no" answer to either of these gives the call Alpha status. Further questions may include "Is the patient sweating?" and "Has the patient got a rapid heart rate?"

Gary Fereday, information officer for the National Association of Community Health Councils in England and Wales (the patients' watchdog), fears the system discriminates against people with language difficulties and could lead to "life-threatening mistakes".

And Maggie Dunn, senior national officer for Unison, while commending the fact that operators can give first-aid advice to callers prior to the arrival of the ambulance, questions whether calls can accurately be classed by medically untrained staff.

On 1 April, the Priority Dispatch System went live in Essex, Berkshire, the West Midlands and Derbyshire. Other ambulance trusts have expressed an interest in it.