Abuse of ambulance services must be curbed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2009, 12:00am

Public services that are free tend to get abused, and this would seem to be the case with ambulances. A Legislative Council committee meeting was told yesterday that people complaining of nothing more than a mosquito bite or constipation were dialling the emergency number 999 to get a ride to hospital for treatment. There is some dispute about just how serious the problem is: Hospital Authority accident and emergency section staff put the proportion of ambulance trips that are unnecessary at more than 40 per cent, but the Fire Services Department, which is in charge of our 200-plus ambulances, says the figure is 22 per cent. Regardless, it is clear that matters are not as they should be and efforts should be taken to remedy the situation.

The gap between the two figures was explained by the department as being because of how hospital staff record cases. A person may be in poor shape when an ambulance arrives, but after treatment on the way to hospital, their condition may have improved considerably. The government auditor says finding the true level is essential in better understanding the issue and has called for electronic logging to replace the present manual system. As worthy as this may be, it ignores the wider issue of ambulance services being stretched to the limit. The department's pledge that an ambulance will be on the scene within 12 minutes of 999 being dialed would appear reasonable; that it is a target that is rarely met makes efforts to improve circumstances essential.

There are any number of reasons for service delays. Lawmakers raised questions about the age of the ambulance fleet and staffing levels. Traffic conditions also play a part. But it is obvious that a substantial reduction in the number of unnecessary trips would make more ambulances available for callers with genuine need.

Education could make a difference, but it may not be the solution and other measures should be explored. Charging non-essential cases for ambulance journeys would send out a strong message to those who are presently abusing the system. This should be among ideas considered to improve a service that clearly could be better.