Who’s going to drive you home tonight?

Older people. We know they great, we know they come in many flavours – sweet, grumpy, old-fashioned…

With Christmas soon to be upon us again, along with the long nights and cold weather, it’s a time when ambulance crews are often called to elderly people suffering from hypothermia, or dehydration. Sometimes infections set in, chest, urine, kidney. All required a visit to hospital. Other times it was something simple that could be treated with medication at home. When I was in the service, the mentality of most of the city crews seemed to be that everyone went into hospital, that’s ok in a city where there is a good transport system, and non-emergency vehicles, dedicated to returning patients home, readily on hand.Because I worked in a large rural area, it was different. There was quite a long journey into the nearest main city hospital so, whenever possible, we and the decent GPs in the area would try to treat the patient in their own home. This was often the best policy as many had no relatives in the area and, as a result, no way to get home after treatment in the city.

On more than one occasion, and this still makes me angry, family members would push doctors or ambulance crews to take their elderly relative into hospital over Christmas or New Year so that they weren’t a burden on the family celebrations. My opinion was that the relative was probably better off in hospital surrounded by people who actually cared, and nursing staff often pull out all the stops for patients at Christmas.

Our biggest problem was, even if we could see a way to treat the patient at home, if they or a family member expressly asked us to take them to hospital, we were obliged to do so. Once at the Accident and Emergency Department, the staff would examine the patient, deem them to be fit to return home then discharge them. This did not mean they were thrown out into the car park, but often it meant a long wait, sometimes in the waiting room, sometimes on a hospital trolley in a corridor, until a relative or friend could be found to collect them or a nursing home arranged transport. Neither of these solutions were ideal. Sometimes, if the patient required transport on a stretcher, they had to wait until a non-emergency crew became available. That would be the next morning at the earliest.

I believe things have improved slightly since I left the job. Doctors have more ability to treat the patient at home, but still there are a lot of unnecessary calls made to the ambulance service, patients unnessarily transported to hospital, unneseccarily using resources and bed space that hospitals don’t have to spare. Sometimes its the fault of the relatives or care staff, calling an ambulance when it’s not really required, sometimes it’s just a problem with the system.

Wherever the issue lies, should you or a loved one find yourself stuck in an A&E department for hours waiting to get home, please don’t blame the ambulance crew. Part of their job is to take people to hospital, that’s all they did.