Ambulance bosses have been told they need to adopt new technology more quickly in an official, highly critical review of the pace of change.
The report from NHS Improvement, which oversees all NHS trusts, emphasises the potential of examples such as auto dispatch technology, which ensures the closest and most appropriate vehicle is sent to an incident.
Its review of productivity and performance among ambulance trusts says the tech was shown 12 years ago to speed up responses to emergencies, but that it is yet to be fully implemented across all of the trusts in England.
Similarly, black box technology and CCTV in ambulances has delivered “significant savings in fuel and accident reductions” – but been fitted by less than half of the trusts.
In addition, advanced mobile location technology – which sends a caller’s location automatically to the control centre – could cut the time it took to establish where an ambulance should be sent.
“It is significantly more accurate than the current system,” says the report, but adds: “However, only four ambulance trusts are currently using this technology.”
The weaknesses have been part of the reason why the ambulance service was failing to reduce pressure on casualty wards by treating half of patients over the phone or at the scene, as it should, says the report.
It adds that the NHS could save £500 million a year if it was more efficient and ambulances were not seen as “a taxi to A&E”.
Because of its ageing fleet, the health service will need 3,300 new ambulances within five years - 700 more than trusts have anticipated.
The review was carried by Lord Carter of Coles, a Labour peer who is a non-executive director at NHS Improvement.
It concludes: “Ambulance services have been at the forefront of technological innovation for many years, but there needs to be renewed emphasis in this area.
“New technology is not adopted rapidly across the service and this, plus the weakness identified in the control centre infrastructure, must be addressed.
“Ambulance services need to plan for tomorrow’s service today and develop robust plans to rapidly improve the resilience of the infrastructure.”
Need for speed
It adds: “With the pace of change, the cycle of development, testing and adoption of new technology must be faster.”
Lord Carter called for plans to “install and utilise black box technology and strengthen management of accidents” to be in place by April next year.
He said: “Too many patients are unnecessarily taken to A&E by ambulances, putting further pressure on services already on the back foot.
“An ambulance is not a taxi to A&E. Modern technology means patients can often be treated at the scene. But an ageing ambulance fleet means that this is not always possible.”
Ambulance trusts answered 10 million 999 calls and attended more than seven million incidents last year.
Image by Lee Haywood, CC BY SA 2.0 through flickr