Lawmakers say no to delayed ambulance times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am

Lawmakers yesterday passed a non-binding motion opposing a government proposal to increase the arrival target of ambulances at an emergency from 12 minutes to up to 20 minutes

At yesterday's security panel meeting, a majority of legislators voiced reservations over the plan despite a government decision to delay the scheme until at least 2014.

Lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the former security minister, said the Security Bureau should end the myth over computer programming for the proposed three-tier ambulance dispatch system.

Under the system, the ambulance call centre operator would ask structured questions about a patient's condition and then assign the case to one of three categories.

The decision on the category would hinge on a computerised recommendation based on urgency of a patient's medical condition as reflected by the caller's response to questions. The three categories are '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.

Ip said her maid had once called 999 saying she had high blood pressure and difficulty in breathing - as the result of a love affair.

She queried whether people would learn how to tailor their responses to the emergency call operator in order to get a quicker response.

Labour-sector lawmaker Ip Wai-ming said people had great doubts about the new dispatch system. 'Who will take the responsibility if a wrong decision about the categorisation is made?' Ip said.

The government's current policy is to provide a free, first-come, first-served service within 12 minutes in 92.5 per cent of cases - regardless of a patient's condition.

Lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong said people would not accept a reduction in the target time for ambulance arrivals, and 12 minutes was the bottom line.

The motion, proposed by James To Kun-sun, against delaying arrival times for ambulances was passed by four votes.

Hong Kong Fire Services Department Ambulancemen's Union chairman Wat Ki-on said the union did not deny there were advantages in the categorisation of ambulance calls, but disagreed with the proposal to further delay target arrival times.

The chairman of the call-operator union, the Hong Kong Fire Services Control Staff's Union, Lee Chung-wing, supported the proposed ambulance dispatch system and believed operators were capable of providing first-aid advice to callers after receiving proper training.

Undersecretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said 70 per cent of respondents supported the three-tier ambulance dispatch system during a consultation period.

He said the new scheme was not aimed at ultimately introducing charges for ambulance calls in future.

In the pending tray

The government will decide on the new dispatch system in 2014

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

The government's current ambulance policy is to service 92.5 per cent of patients within this number of minutes of their emergency call: 12