The aim of this study was to explore the range and nature of influences on safety in decision-making by ambulance service staff (paramedics). A qualitative approach was adopted using a range of complementary methods. The study has provided insights on the types of decisions that staff engage in on a day-to-day basis. It has also identified a range of system risk factors influencing decisions about patient care. Although this was a relatively small-scale exploratory study, confidence in the generalisability of the headline findings is enhanced by the high level of consistency in the findings, obtained using multiple methods, and the notable consensus among participants.
The seven predominant system influences identified should not be considered discrete but as overlapping and complementary issues. They also embody a range of subthemes that represent topics for future research and/or intervention.
The apparently high level of consistency across the participating trusts suggests that the issues identified may be generic and relevant to other ambulance service trusts.
In view of the remit of this study, aspects relating to system weaknesses and potential threats to patient safety dominate in the account of findings. However, it should be noted that respondent accounts also provided examples of systems that were said to be working well, for example specific care management pathways, local roles and ways of working and technological initiatives such as IBIS and the ePRF.
Implications for health care
The NHS system within which the ambulance service operates is characterised in our study as fragmented and inconsistent. For ambulance service staff the extent of variation across the geographical areas in which they work is problematic in terms of knowing what services are available and being able to access them. The lack of standardisation in practice guidelines, pathways and protocols across services and between areas makes it particularly challenging for staff to keep up to date with requirements in different parts of their own trust locations and when crossing trust boundaries. Although a degree of consistency across the network is likely to improve the situation, it is also desirable to have sufficient flexibility to accommodate the needs of specific local populations. There was some concern over the potential for further fragmentation with the increased number of CCGs.
Ambulance services are increasingly under pressure to focus on reducing conveyance rates to A&E; this arguably intensifies the need to ensure that crews are appropriately skilled to be able to make effective decisions over the need to convey or not to convey if associated risks to patients are to be minimised. Our findings highlight the challenges of developing staff and ensuring that their skills are utilised where they are most needed within the context of organisational resource constraints and operational demands. Decisions over non-conveyance to A&E are moderated by the availability of alternative care pathways and providers. There were widespread claims of local variability in this respect. Staff training and development, and access to alternatives to A&E, were identified as priorities for attention by workshop attendees.
One of the difficulties for ambulance services is that they operate as a 24/7 service within a wider urgent and emergency care network that, beyond A&E, operates a more restricted working day. The study findings identify this as problematic for two reasons. First, it fuels demand for ambulance service care as a route to timely treatment, when alternatives may involve delay. Second, it contributes to inappropriate conveyance to A&E because more appropriate options are unavailable or limited during out-of-hours periods. Ultimately, this restricts the scope for ensuring that patients are getting the right level of care at the right time and place. Study participants identified some patient populations as particularly poorly served in terms of alternatives to A&E (e.g. those with mental health issues, those at the end of life, older patients and those with chronic conditions).
The effectiveness of the paramedic role in facilitating access to appropriate care pathways hinges on relationships with other care providers (e.g. primary care, acute care, mental health care, community health care). An important element relates to the cultural profile of paramedics in the NHS, specifically, the extent to which other health professionals and care providers consider the clinical judgements/decisions made by paramedics as credible and actionable. Staff identified this as a barrier to access where the ambulance service is still viewed primarily as a transport service. Consideration could be given to ways of improving effective teamworking and communication across service and professional boundaries.
Although paramedics acknowledged the difficulties of telephone triage, they also identified how the limitations of this system impact on them. Over-triage at the initial call-handling stage places considerable demands on both staff and vehicle resources. A related concern is the limited information conveyed to crews following triage. Initial triage was suggested as an area that warrants attention to improve resource allocation.
The findings highlight the challenges faced by front-line ambulance service staff. It was apparent that the extent and nature of the demand for ambulance conveyance represents a notable source of strain and tension for individuals and at an organisational level. For example, there were widespread claims that meeting operational demands for ambulance services limits the time available for training and professional development, with this potentially representing a risk for patients and for staff. Staff perceptions of risk relating to patient safety extend to issues of secondary risk management, that is, personal and institutional liabilities, in particular risks associated with loss of professional registration. The belief that they are more likely to be blamed than supported by their organisation in the event of an incident was cited by staff as a source of additional anxiety when making more complex decisions. This perceived vulnerability can provoke excessively risk-averse decisions. These issues merit further attention to examine the workforce implication of service delivery changes, including how to ensure that staff are appropriately equipped and supported to deal effectively with the demands of their role.
Paramedics identified a degree of progress in relation to the profile of patient safety within their organisations but the apparent desire within trusts to prioritise safety improvement was felt to be constrained by service demands and available resources. Attempts to prioritise patient safety appear to focus on ensuring that formal systems are in place (e.g. reporting and communication). Concerns were expressed over how well these systems function to support improvement, for example how incident reports are responded to and whether lessons learned are communicated to ambulance staff within and between trusts. Consideration could be given to identifying ways of supporting ambulance service trusts to develop the safety culture within their organisation.
Service users attributed the increased demand for ambulance services to difficulties in identifying and accessing alternatives. They were receptive to non-conveyance options but felt that lack of awareness of staff roles and skills may cause concern when patients expect conveyance to A&E.
Recommendations for research
The workshop attendees identified a range of areas for attention in relation to intervention and research, which are provided in Chapter 6 (see Suggestions for potential interventions and research). The following recommendations for research are based on the study findings:
Limited and variable access to services in the wider health and social care system is a significant barrier to reducing inappropriate conveyance to A&E. More research is needed to identify effective ways of improving the delivery of care across service boundaries, particularly for patients with limited options at present (e.g. those with mental health issues, those at the end of life and older patients). Research should address structural and attitudinal barriers and how these might be overcome.
Ambulance services are increasingly focused on reducing conveyance to A&E and they need to ensure that there is an appropriately skilled workforce to minimise the potential risk. The evidence points to at least two issues: (1) training and skills and (2) the cultural profile of paramedics in the NHS, that is, whether others view their decisions as credible. Research could explore the impact of enhanced skills on patient care and on staff, for example the impact of increased training in urgent rather than emergency care. This would also need to address potential cultural barriers to the effective use of new skills.
Research to explore the impact of different aspects of safety culture on ambulance service staff and the delivery of patient care (e.g. incident reporting, communication, teamworking, and training) could include comparisons across different staff groups and the identification of areas for improvement, as well as interventions that could potentially be tested.
The increased breadth of decision-making by ambulance service crews with advanced skills includes more diagnostics; therefore, there is a need to look at the diagnostic process and potential causes of error in this environment.
There is a need to explore whether there are efficient and safe ways of improving telephone triage decisions to reduce over-triage, particularly in relation to calls requiring an 8-minute response. This could include examining training and staffing levels, a higher level of clinician involvement or other forms of decision support.
There is a need to explore public awareness of, attitudes towards, beliefs about and expectations of the ambulance service and the wider urgent and emergency care network and the scope for behaviour change interventions, for example communication of information about access to and use of services; empowering the public through equipping them with the skills to directly access the services that best meet their needs; and informing the public about the self-management of chronic conditions.
A number of performance measures were identified engendering perverse motivations leading to suboptimal resource utilisation. An ongoing NIHR Programme Grant for Applied Research (RP-PG-0609–10195; ‘Pre-hospital Outcomes for Evidence-Based Evaluation’) aims to develop new ways of measuring ambulance service performance. It is important that evaluations of new performance metrics or other innovations (e.g. Make Ready ambulances, potential telehealth technologies or decision-support tools) address their potential impact on patient safety.
Conclusion 4-4: The data collection model adopted by the NCS is complex, will challenge the abilities of the staff and coordinating center to achieve a uniform and consistent national data collection, and may compromise key study objectives.
Conclusion 4-5: The NCS research plan does not provide sufficient information on the use of data collection guidelines and quality-control procedures to enable evaluation of the planned implementation of a uniform national data collection system.
Conclusion 4-6: The NCS research plan does not address directly the issue of respondent burden, except to say that “some” effort is being made to reduce it, nor does the plan make clear the total number of hours the respondent must commit to the study. In particular, in light of the estimate of the interview length (4 hours) for the baseline interview, a critical collection for the study, the research plan pays little attention to respondent burden and its impact on the quality of the data.
Conclusion 4-7: The NCS research plan provides little information concerning best methods for sample recruitment to achieve initial and follow-up target response rates, sample maintenance and sample retention procedures for implementation at the study sites, community involvement plans consistent with the uniform implementation of data collection procedures, or contingency plans to support study sites that do not achieve target response rates.
Conclusion 4-8: The NCS research plan does not address the ongoing methodological needs of the study—to study data collection procedures and instruments, conduct experiments, and evaluate the quality of the survey operations and the quality of the data—nor does the plan make the best use of the Vanguard Centers.
Recommendation 4-4: The NCS should consider ways in which the survey data collection could be consolidated into a smaller number of highly qualified survey organizations.
Recommendation 4-5: Because of the complexity of the proposed organizational model for data collection and the difficulty of maintaining the quality and uniformity of data collection procedures across a large number of study sites, the NCS program office should establish and monitor strict standards for enrollment, retention, and data collection at each of the study sites and be prepared to take immediate corrective action if sites do not meet high-quality standards in data collection.
Recommendation 4-6: The NCS should prepare a plan for monitoring progress of the study in reaching its sample size goals. As part of the plan, the NCS should take advantage of the experience of the Vanguard Centers to evaluate initial enrollment rates, the effectiveness and potential respondent burden of the interview instrument, and the ability of the Vanguard Centers to obtain the required household environmental measures reliably.
Recommendation 4-7: To resolve issues that arise during data collection, the NCS should set aside sufficient resources to maintain an ongoing program of methods research and field experimentation. Among the issues that might be addressed in this research are the reliability and validity of previously untested survey questions and measurement strategies, the effectiveness of sample retention procedures, predictors of response outcomes associated with sample initial recruitment and subsequent annual retention, error implications of unit nonresponse, adjustment strategies for unit nonresponse, and methods for dealing with item nonresponse.