Treating the clock and not the patient: ambulance response times and risk

L Price
Quality & Safety in Health Care 2006, 15 (2): 127-30

BACKGROUND: In a qualitative study of paramedics' attitudes to pre-hospital thrombolysis (PHT), the government target that emergency calls should receive a response within 8 minutes emerged as a key factor influencing attitudes to staff morale and attitudes to the job as a whole. A study was undertaken to examine paramedics' accounts of the effects on patient care and on their own health and safety of attempts to meet the 8 minute target.

METHODS: In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 20 experienced paramedics (16 men) mostly aged 30-50 years with a mean length of service of 19 years. The paramedics were encouraged to raise issues which they themselves considered salient. The interviews were tape recorded, transcribed, and analysed according to the constant comparative method.

RESULTS: The paramedics argued that response time targets are inadequate as a performance indicator. They dominate ambulance service culture and practice at the expense of other quality indicators and are vulnerable to "fiddling". The targets can conflict with other quality indicators such as timely administration of PHT and rapid transport of patients to hospital. The strategies introduced to meet the targets can be detrimental to patient care and also have adverse effects on the health, safety, wellbeing, and morale of paramedics.

CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study suggest that the 8 minute response time is not evidence based and is putting patients and ambulance crews at risk. There is a need for less simplistic quality indicators which recognise that there are many stages between a patient's call for help and safe arrival in hospital.

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