Impossible targets overshadowing good work of Huntingdonshire paramedics

Stephen Avery (left) and Mark Whalley (right)

Stephen Avery (left) and Mark Whalley (right) - Credit: Archant

WHEN people used to ask paramedic Mark Whalley where he worked 10 years ago, he answered Huntingdon. If you asked him the same question now he would tell you Cambridgeshire ... and beyond.

Mr Whalley, 43, has worked at Huntingdon ambulance station for 12 years and says he has seen the job become more and more demanding.

“The area we cover gets bigger and bigger every year,” said Mr Whalley. “When I started, I used to tell people I worked in Huntingdon, then after a few years I would say Peterborough as well: now we cover the whole of Cambridgeshire as well as Bedford. Sometimes you can cover up to 250 miles in a shift.”

The demands on stations like Huntingdon are ever growing, as was illustrated last Wednesday (April 17) when Mr Whalley and his colleague Stephen Avery were called to assist a 66-year-old woman in Fenstanton who had fallen and injured her shoulder at 8.37am.

The two had just returned from their first job of the morning and had poured a coffee when their radios began to beep.

The journey from the kitchen at the station in Hinchingbrooke Park to the scene of the accident in Fenstanton took just 11 minutes in rush hour traffic, which is well within the nationally-set 30 minute target for what was graded as a ‘green two’ incident.

However, had the incident been graded as life-threatening, the response would have fallen outside the nationally-set eight minutes target for a job. And the journey between Huntingdon and Fenstanton is by no means the longest the crew have to make.

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Mr Avery, a 34-year-old qualified student paramedic, said: “We got there as quickly and as safely as we could but we would have had only eight minutes if it had been a life-threatening injury.

“This is where we are getting penalised for target times not being met but with the distance we cover it’s not possible.”

Mr Whalley said: “I think the job is getting more and more demanding.

“The demands of the public are always going up and we’re getting extra calls now with those getting diverted from NHS Direct, some of which don’t really need an ambulance.”

The issue of people making the right call has been a big campaign for the ambulance services. Mr Avery said that, while he understood that people panicked and wanted help in medical situations, it was frustrating when lives could be being saved elsewhere.

He said: “I think it’s difficult getting across to people when it’s a genuine emergency and when it’s something we can’t do anything about. You don’t want to discourage people from calling an ambulance when they need one, but the service is struggling so much because of non-emergencies.

“A lot of people call an ambulance when it’s serious for them, but it’s very difficult when you’re tied up on someone who has had a cough for three weeks and you know there’s a serious job around the corner.”

The East of England Ambulance Service Trust has been at the sharp end of a lot of criticism of late, with delays in getting to jobs leading to some complaints from members of the public. The service has been put under the scrutiny of Parliament and, because it has failed its performance targets, it will face a financial penalty.

The service has reacted by adding ambulances to its fleet, and the chief executive of one of the top-performing ambulance trusts in the country has been parachuted in to EEAS to turn around its fortunes. Anthony Marsh, CEO of the West Midlands Ambulance Service, was brought in by the Government to address issues regarding ambulance response times and concerns from patients and politicians as part of an independent review.

This is all happening at a time when the budget is being squeezed by more than £50million in the next five years. The pressure on frontline staff will continue to grow.

Nevertheless, paramedics like Mr Whalley and Mr Avery continue to bring a smile and light-heartedness to the job, while putting the people they treat at ease. When the two paramedics attended a care home in Huntingdon on Wednesday morning to help a woman with severe chest pains, they managed to have a laugh and a joke with her and asked after her welfare at the hospital later in the day.

Mr Whalley said: “You do need some banter for distraction purposes – as long as it’s appropriate. Some people are just natural at it. I was never a natural at it and it has taken time, but Steve is a natural.”

Mr Avery added: “It’s nice to follow up and find out what you have done right and whether you were right in what was wrong with the patient. But above that we worry about them. We have just spent the last hour trying to help them and we want to see if they’re okay.”

And that cannot be scrutinised by any performance targets.