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Winter warning as ITV News investigation finds sharp rise in mistakes by ambulance services

  • ITV News Health Producer Patrick Russell explains why mistakes by the ambulance service have increased

It’s hard to get away from the warnings that this winter is going to be worse than the last for the NHS.

There have been so many voices that it could be easy to become immune to them.

That’s why our figures, revealing that the number of serious incidents involving the ambulance service has risen dramatically, are so important.

Serious incidents are often mistakes that are so significant they warrant investigation or result in a patient dying or being seriously harmed.

Their increase suggests that pressure, put on paramedics during the winter months, is leading to many more mistakes that need official probing.

When those mistakes lead to people dying unnecessarily, you have to ask: what is going wrong?

What we found:

ITV News sent freedom of information requests to ambulance trusts in England, Scotland and Wales.

Last winter they recorded a combined 370 serious incidents, a 72% increase compared to last winter when there was 201.

  • North West Ambulance Service recorded 48 serious incidents last winter compared to 22 the year before.
  • 35 of the 48 were unexpected or avoidable deaths.
  • One death occurred while the ambulance trust was waiting for space to become available in A&E.
  • West Midlands Ambulance trust recorded 17 serious incidents last winter
  • They included a baby who was discharged on scene and subsequently had a cardiac arrest, a child who was discharged with an open fracture and two patients who were dropped during transfer
  • The Welsh Ambulance Service saw the number of serious incidents more than triple
  • The count went from 16 in 16/17 and 56 last winter.

I spoke to two young sisters in the West Midlands who claim their dad would still be alive had it not been for mistakes made by paramedics.

He died from a brain aneurism in 2016, three days after paramedics decided not to take him to hospital.

Nicola and Tors McGinty say mistakes led to their father's death. Credit: ITV News

West Midlands Ambulance service launched an investigation and have admitted fault but they claim it wasn’t a serious incident.

Nicola McGinty told us: "They made that decision not to take him.

"They've got no idea of the pain and torture we've had to go through."

Christopher McGinty died from a brain aneurism in 2016. Credit: ITV News

She and her sister Tors told ITV News the paramedics were rushed and should have had better training.

The Trust in question has said lessons have been learned.

Dr Nick Scriven, president of the society for acute medicine, told ITV News this is just going to get worse.

Dr Nick Scriven, president of the society for acute medicine, says A&E departments remain stretched. Credit: ITV News

And the reason for that primarily is funding and staffing in the NHS.

He told us that A&E departments are so stretched at the moment that there is no give in the system.

And the Ambulance service is no different.

Demand has never been so high for the service. Calls have risen on average by 5.2% every year since 2011 in England.

Several factors contribute to this rising demand including more elderly patients and those with alcohol and mental health problems.

Funding has simply not kept up with demand.

16%
The increase in the budget for ambulance trusts between 2011 and 2016.
30%
The increase in the number of call outs between 2011 and 2016.

It’s easy to see where the problem lies.

Staffing is another major issue. Ambulance trusts are struggling to recruit the staff they need. One in 10 paramedic roles is left unfilled. And in recent years, the number of ambulance workers quitting has doubled.

The ambulance service has admitted that last winter was particularly challenging and they have learnt lessons from mistakes made.

Ambulance crews face another harsh winter. Credit: PA

They also say the number of serious incidents is relatively small compared to the large volume of patients they looked after.

That may be so, but when patients are dying needlessly you have to ask: how bad does it have to get before something is done?

Dr Scriven says as we go into the winter season and indeed the Christmas period all staff will be working flat out to keep things moving in A&E, as well as the ambulance service.

But when staff and space are spread so thinly it doesn’t take much for something serious to go wrong.

That’s not just a worrying assessment of the next few weeks, it’s frightening.