Ambulances are in the news a lot right now so I’ve done a shift with a crew in Brighton and Hove so I can see what it’s like with my own eyes. Whenever I can find the time, I try to spend it with frontline staff to understand better what it takes to keep communities safer, healthier and connected.
I spent the shift with Angelique and Ben, two highly experienced paramedics with SECAM, the Ambulance service for our region. I have to say right now that having spent hours in their company zipping from one emergency to another, I’d feel very reassured if I were involved in an emergency and I saw their faces at the scene… they were just brilliant.
After touring the ambulance centre in Falmer to understand the people and technologies that go into supporting and directing their crews, I took to the road. We’d not even left the compound when the first call came in. Having travelled across town at speed (throughout the shift I never got used to shooting red lights, it just feels so wrong!) we arrived at what was a complex situation that required specialist equipment to be requested. Moving someone in pain, who is frightened, out of their home, out of a high-rise building and then transporting them to hospital was a sensitive operation done with real skill…
… Arriving at A&E was a real shock for me. A few people in recent months have described A&E as a ‘war zone’ and as soon as I walked in helping to push an unwell patient on a stretcher I realised what they mean.
Let me be clear, I’m obviously not talking about poor standards or the walking wounded, but the thing about working in areas of emergency, which I did for some years, is that you just make do and there’s always a sense of being close to the point of being overwhelmed.
The booths were full, so was a temporary area
We parked the ambulance in the emergency bay, delicately lowered the patient from the vehicle, and wheeled her into the building and I was immediately struck by the sheer number of patients in that small space. The booths with paper curtains at one end were full, and so was another temporary area with perspex dividers. So was the corridor which had patients lined up along one wall.
We looked for somewhere to settle our patient in a process akin to trying to park a car on a busy street. Sometimes we passed a space wondering ‘could I squeeze into that’. We settled back where we started, right by the entrance door.
The ambulance number was logged as we entered which triggered a time target to have the patient admitted. A little later I was shown the screen tracking all the ambulances present waiting to admit their patients. There were a couple highlighted in green, a few in amber, but most were red coloured – I didn’t need the meaning of that explained to me.
You see, a vulnerable patient being brought by ambulance to A&E needs to be monitored at all times. Someone with the right training must have ownership of their situation. So until A&E staff have the capacity to admit the patient the ambulance crew must wait by their side. This took about 45 minutes for the first patient and about an hour and a half for the next.
Ambulance crews need to wait for hours
A lot of people, perhaps a majority, of those turning up at A&E, wouldn’t be there if the right measures were in place to prevent people with minor issues being allowed to develop into chronic ones, or had swift access to community-based doctors. So A&E, the front door to hospitals, is overcrowded. That means ambulance crews need to wait for hours at the bedside of patients and that means they’re not outside able to respond to new emergencies so the time it takes to get an ambulance grows and grows.
Every person working in A&E and in our ambulance service is a hero. But bear this in mind too: the hospital wasn’t in crisis on the shift I worked, it wasn’t a particularly busy day by current standards. In fact many of the staff were a little disappointed I didn’t see it at its most challenging!
As you can imagine, going through something requiring an ambulance with blue flashing lights to arrive is pretty scary. I saw a lot of people who were so frightened about what was happening to them – having a health emergency is scary! And that’s what’s so remarkable about the people who chose to work in emergency medicine, not only are they great medics they’re also fantastic about protecting people’s dignity and caring for them too.
We must, must solve the staffing crisis
You only have to be there for a moment to see that our NHS is under huge strain and the system is clearly broken in places. We must, must solve the staffing crisis and get community health back onto its feet having been decimated by austerity and botched reforms. I’m pleased Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, has launched a series of fully funded proposals to tackle just this.
I learned so much from my shift with Angelique and Ben and I’m grateful that they allowed me to come out with them on a busy evening. It’ll take time to fix the mess a future Labour government will inherit, but experiences like this have given me more determination than ever to make sure we at least get the chance – every future patient and paramedic is depending on it.
More than 10,000 ambulance workers across England and Wales are taking strike action over a below-inflation 4% pay award.
The original, longer version of this article can be seen on the Facebook page of Peter Kyle, MP for Hove & Portslade and shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland.