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Monday, 17 December, 2001, 00:05 GMT
Ambulance plea to beat timewasters
Spurious 999 calls are a major problem
Some 999 callers - such as the one who wanted an ambulance because her husband "wouldn't listen to her" - could be threatening the lives of genuine emergencies, say ambulance bosses.

The London Ambulance Service (LAS) is launching a campaign to cut down calls about trivial or non-existent ailments.

It says some people seem determined to use emergency vehicles "like a taxi service".

Timewasters - examples in the last fortnight
Man outside McDonalds who had leg pains and wanted to go home
20-year-old man with fingernail hanging off
40-year-old woman with toothache after having a tooth removed - two weeks earlier
31-year-old woman, worried because she sniffed deodorant accidentally - even though she feels fine
Man feeling unwell after picking his nose, dipping his finger into jam and then eating it
A caller who had lost his keys
A man who wanted to know where an ambulance had picked him up from that morning - because he was drunk and can't remember
Man who cut his toe clipping his toenails
Woman who wanted an ambulance because her husband "wouldn't listen to her"
Its own survey suggests that many people would be prepared to misuse the service.

Four in 10 of those Londoners questioned said they would phone for an ambulance if they could not get through to their GP surgery.

Front of queue

Most thought that arriving at accident and emergency departments in an ambulance would put them at the head of the queue for getting treatment.

The LAS is launching a series of poster and radio advertisements to try to persuade the public that it is not a free taxi service.

Chief executive Peter Bradley said: "It's obviously very frustrating for the staff taking calls in the control room and the ambulance crews who respond to them when people phone for help without seeming to have considered other options that might be available.

"The problem has the potential to be far more serious at this time of year - when demand could rise at any time - but putting us under extra avoidable pressure."

Other options

He added: "It is clear that some people who call us don't necessarily want an ambulance and are only after advice, but these enquiries still clog up the call-taking system and can prevent other people from getting through."

The other options open to non-emergency cases are:

  • NHS Direct, either on the phone on (0845) 4647 or on the web
  • NHS walk-in centres in major cities
  • Your GP or GP out-of-hours service
  • Pharmacists

The ad campaign features re-enactment of some of the "all-time classic" timewasters who have rung for an ambulance in London.

They include - a girl with ill-fitting teeth braces, a man with hiccups, and a lady who was unable to make contact with her son - because he was at the pub!

However, they have also come up with a list of 20 more examples - all gathered since 25 November this year.

The emergency services also have to cope with a side-effect of the ubiquitous mobile phone - silent 999 calls triggered by inadvertent dialling of phones left in pockets or bags.

They are forced to assume that every silent call is potentially made by a patient who has then fallen unconscious - and respond to them.

The BBC's Karen Allen
spends an evening with an ambulance team in London
Genuine 999 timewasters, voiced by the Today team
"I picked my nose then dipped my finger in jam, and now I feel ill"

Click here to go to London
See also:

14 Oct 99 | Health
Zero tolerance for NHS violence
25 Dec 99 | Health
Bizarre tales from A&E
16 Feb 01 | Health
Parents lack first aid knowledge
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