AN NHS trust has admitted it is providing a “unacceptable” service as ambulances carrying patients are being forced to queue, sometimes for hours, outside hospitals.
Paramedics working for both Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) and North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) said that, while they faced delays in handing over patients at many hospitals across the region, the issue had become dangerous at the James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough.
One veteran paramedic told the Northern Echo: “Somebody is going to die somewhere down the line and it could be the most vulnerable, children.
“Families of sick people arrive at hospitals and expect to find them in a bed, but they are still outside in an ambulance. The frustration of ambulance staff is beyond belief.”
Bosses at James Cook, which has been trying to cut the handover delays for several months, said increasing numbers of very sick patients meant there were too few cubicles for them at times and their staff had insufficient time to admit them.
But paramedics say as queues of up to ten ambulances “stack up” outside the hospital for more than two hours, their ability to respond to 999 calls is affected, and colleagues from as far as Lancashire are called in to cover emergencies.
It is understood as a consequence of ambulance staff working the maximum overtime due to hours wasted outside hospitals, including York, Harrogate and recently the Friarage Hospital, Northallerton, the number of ambulances being operated at some North Yorkshire stations drops at weekends.
Health watchdogs described the situation as “grave”, particularly as ambulances had increasing journey times to hospitals as more services become centred at regional centres of excellence.
North Yorkshire health scrutiny deputy chairman John Blackie said: “The ambulance service has always been taken for granted and there’s going to have to be a change of culture around that.”
NHS bosses said urgent action had been launched to improve the handover of patients.
YAS chairman Della Cannings said a lack of NHS performance targets focusing on patient handover times had meant hospitals lacked the incentive to improve.
She said as hospital trusts had disputed how long ambulances had waited with patients, clinical handover screens had been installed at hospital entrances.
Mrs Cannings, a former North Yorkshire Police chief constable, said she had successfully lobbied for a nationwide crackdown on hospitals which left ambulances waiting.
A spokesman for the NHS Commissioning Board said from April, it was “setting the expectation that all handovers between an ambulance and A&E Department must take place within 15 minutes and crews should be ready to accept new calls within a further 15 minutes”.
He said both hospital and ambulance trusts would face contractual fines for handover delays over 30 minutes, and a further fine for delays over an hour.
Mrs Cannings said: “What I want to make sure is that the hospitals don’t think it is cheaper to carry on as they are and pay the fine.”
South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust said while James Cook’s accident and emergency department was designed to provide for 60,000 attendances annually, it was expecting to handle 105,000 cases this year.
Susan Watson, its operational director, said: “It is certainly an unacceptable situation. The whole team are working together to try and address this.
“We know we are struggling with patient flow. This is not about money, it is about patient care.”
“We are seeing a real surge in demand from very sick patients, but it is going to take some time for us to create both physical capacity and staffing numbers.
“We are looking at redesigning the department to cope. Clearly to receive the patient we have to have a cubicle to put the patient into.”