Volunteers drafted in to ease the pressure

Paramedics on the ward: Scarborough experiment an example of technician s relieving junior doctors as roles in hospitals overlap
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Paramedics from a Yorkshire ambulance service are working on hospital wards to relieve pressure on junior doctors in the National Health Service.

The experiment at Scarborough Hospital became official four weeks ago and now a team of eight paramedics provides weekend cover. Supervised by a medical registrar, they take blood for analysis, give injections, set up drips, and monitor patients with heart problems.

Other hospital trusts in the region are now seeking information about the scheme, and the Department of Health has welcomed it as an "illustration of innovative flexibility in the reformed NHS".

The scheme was initiated by Dr Phil Brown, consultant physician at Scarborough and North East Yorkshire Healthcare NHS trust, and worked out with Mike King, chief executive of North Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

The aim is to "relieve the technical workload of junior doctors from procedures which do not require skilled medical knowledge" and the plan was partly devised to reduce junior doctors' hours in line with government guidelines.

"Paramedics are trained to do all these tasks - and to do them in hostile conditions. They are not replacing doctors," Mr King said. "The paramedics who work on the wards are all volunteers and work in their own time. Because of the ambulance rotas they get long stretches of days off. We are not diverting resources from their ambulance duties. They are paid the standard paramedic rates for four hours' duty on Saturdays and Sundays."

Paramedics are skilled technicians and Mr King sees a role for them in many other areas: "The calibre of those entering the ambulance service is getting higher. They are seeking more challenging roles."

Bryan Ward, station officer at Whitby Ambulance Service, was an early volunteer. "I go in about twice a month and it has worked very well. At first we worried about stepping on other people's toes, the laboratory staff for instance when we are taking blood, because we are doing what they would do in the week.

"I thoroughly enjoy it. It keeps up my skill levels, the contact with patients is enjoyable and it is nice to see how people are getting on, who you brought in by ambulance. It also means we can interact with the hospital staff."

The scheme, which costs pounds 8,000 a year, has been financed by the Northern and Yorkshire Health Authority from money made available by the Government for the junior doctors' "New Deal" initiative.

"Paramedics are an untapped resource," Mr Ward said. "We are looking to see what else we can do."

Dr Tim Hopkirk, a paediatrician and British Medical Association representative for junior doctors in the area said: "These are skilled technicians doing specifically allocated jobs. When you are busy admitting people on to the wards, you don't have time to take blood so you end up doing it at three and four in the afternoon. That means the labs don't know when they are getting the routine work, and patients end up getting their results later."

Paramedics, on the other hand, can take blood samples in the morning, on their 8am-to-noon shifts, and can work to a deadline of 10.30am.

Dr Hopkirk described the scheme as "an effective use of resources" and emphasised the benefit to the patients.