EMS service delivery collapse costing patients their lives

Issued by Jane Cowley, MPL
Shadow MEC for Health

Critically ill patients fight for their lives, and some die, while waiting for an ambulance that takes hours to arrive, if at all. This is not only traumatic for them but for their loved ones.

The sad reality is that the Eastern Cape’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) is collapsing. Ambulance response times run into hours, not minutes, and that’s if they come at all because the centralised emergency call centre is unreachable.

The DA is calling on Health MEC, Nomakosazana Meth, to act immediately on the recommendation of the Health Portfolio Committee to decentralise the EMS, and dismantle the centralised call centre system.

The DA is aware of at least two critically ill patients who have lost their lives in the past two weeks, while waiting for hours for the ambulance to arrive.

National norms call for ambulance turnaround times of 15 minutes in urban areas, and a turnaround time of 45 minutes in rural areas.

The Department cannot continue to blame response times on the dire shortage of ambulances and EMS personnel in the province. The EMS resources we do have are not being managed optimally and failures to answer emergency calls, as well as slow ambulance turnaround times, are costing human lives.

This year, in eKomani (formerly Queenstown) which services the Chris Hani district, including Cradock and Middelburg, residents in Cradock noted the number of times that the call centre never answered their phones (6), the phones were permanently engaged (3), the call centre staff member put the phone down in mid-conversation (2) and the number of times the call was completed but the ambulance never arrived (8).

And this is the experience of just one town in the district. How many lives were lost due to this dysfunctional call centre and how many more are the Department willing to sacrifice?

It is shocking to think that so many desperately ill people depend on this service, but call operators cannot be bothered to answer the Call Centre phones.

The situation is equally bad in the Buffalo City Metro, where patients have waited for more than five hours for an ambulance to come.

Until such time that the entire EMS system, including call centres, is decentralised and brought back to the communities that they serve, we will continue to lose the lives of people who otherwise could be saved.