Calls grow for priority ambulance system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 April, 2010, 12:00am

Patients' groups, a medical academic and a think tank have urged the government to implement a three-tier ambulance dispatch system as soon as possible.

They say the measure is well supported by the public and would help to improve patient survival rates. Their appeal comes after the administration decided to delay introduction of a new system until at least 2014.

The think tank Civic Exchange, the Alliance for Patients' Mutual Help Organisations and an accident and emergency medical academic said yesterday there was an urgent need for a priority ambulance dispatching system in the city.

Professor Timothy Rainer, director of the accident and emergency medicine academic unit at Chinese University, said the new dispatch system could help to improve the survival rate of critically ill patients.

'For a patient with no heart beat, there is a 10 per cent decrease in the chance of survival for every minute's delay in treatment,' Rainer said. Studies showed the survival rate of a patient with no heart beat could be improved from 2 per cent to 8 per cent after the introduction of a medical priority dispatching system.

Under the system proposed by the government, emergency calls would be divided into three categories: '1' for critical or life-threatening cases; '2' for serious but non-life-threatening cases; and '3' for non-acute cases.

The target would be for an ambulance to arrive within nine, 12 and 20 minutes, respectively.

At present, all emergency calls are responded to on a first-come-first-served basis, with a target response time of 12 minutes, which would be met 92.5 per cent of the time.

The Security Bureau and Fire Services Department projected last year that the new system could be in place by 2012. However, the government has decided to delay it until at least 2014, according to a paper submitted to the Legislative Council's security panel on Wednesday. Legco will discuss implementation of the ambulance dispatch system on Tuesday. Chairmen of an ambulance staff union and emergency call centre union will join the meeting, and the patients' alliance is keen to attend.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of Civic Exchange, called for the government to reconsider the original plan to implement the system in 2012 or 2013. She said the group saw the move to delay the system to 2014 as a strategic move by the government, as there was opposition to the system from within the administration by the ambulance union.

But from the public's perspective, this was no time to wait for another one or two years when it came to people who really needed the new system, which could help to save their lives, she said.

Cheung Tak-hai, vice-chairman of the Alliance for Patients' Mutual Help Organisations, feared the government may further delay implementation of the system, or even shelve it, due to opposing views.

Loh added: 'The further delay of the dispatch system is unreasonable, as the issue is well supported by the public.'

The patients' alliance, Rainer and Civic Exchange are confident the new dispatch system can work well, as there is still plenty of time to educate people on how to describe their health situations to emergency call centre operators. A dispatch operator would ask clear, structured questions about a patient's condition and then assign the case to one of the three tiers.

Getting busier

Some 617,265 emergency ambulance calls were received last year, up from 573,657 in 2007, an increase of: 8%