Time to value ambulance staff
Source: NHE Jan/Feb 17
Alan Lofthouse, Unison's national ambulance officer, discusses the need for policymakers to address the rising rate of ambulance staff leaving the NHS and show them they really are valued as part of the health team.
No one wants to be in a position to have to call out an ambulance. But when they do, it’s because they have a real emergency on their hands. Perhaps someone near and dear is having a medical emergency, or they are helping a stranger in need. Either way, they expect a fast, professional response.
They will certainly get a professional response, but paramedics are struggling in some areas to get to calls as quickly as they would want or indeed need to.
This might be because some are with ambulances queuing outside busy A&E departments, waiting to deliver patients into the care of overstretched emergency staff, or because there aren’t enough ambulance staff to cope with demand. Many trusts are struggling to fill vacancies and don’t have a full complement of crews.
Part of this has been down to the wages of ambulance staff. Just recently, paramedics received good news about a pay grading issue that had dragged on for two years. But for many, this regrading came too late. They had already voted with their feet and left their jobs. With starting pay still as low as £22,000 a year it’s not hard to see why they have.
It’s not just about the money, either. Ambulance staff are reporting increased levels of stress. There is frustration because of time spent waiting in casualty departments to discharge patients.
Many working hours are wasted each shift because A&E staff are so overstretched. They also can’t move patients on until beds have become free elsewhere on wards. This creates a log-jam of patients, with ambulance staff often left kicking their heels sometimes for hours on end – all the time knowing they are needed elsewhere to deal with the next emergency case.
And then there are the late finishes when 12-hour days overrun because emergency calls come in near the end of the shift. This can put severe pressure on staff after a busy working day, when they should be at home relaxing and preparing for the next shift.
A rise in violent attacks, including aggressive behaviour from patients or their companions, make even the most committed paramedic question why they do the job. As more women enter the profession, there are more instances of sexual assault being reported. No one should have to put up with assault of any sort because of the job they do.
Training a paramedic can take up to two years, and with all the investment, time and money that entails, it is hard to understand why some trusts don’t try to hold onto their staff. The strains of the job are burning people out and are an important reason why people leave. More could be done to support frontline staff. It will, of course, come at a cost, but anything has to be cheaper and more efficient than constantly having to recruit new people.
Government plans to raise the age of retirement also don’t help, as the strains of the job get harder the older ambulance staff get. Watching retirement ages disappear over the horizon is a sure-fire way of encouraging staff to look for less onerous and stressful employment.
We could also be seeing the available pool of people wanting to work in the ambulance service start to dry up. Recruitment problems are so bad in some parts of the country that ambulance services have resorted to recruiting from overseas. But these short-term solutions don’t address the serious problems that have led to the need to recruit from abroad in the first place.
Ambulance staff are no different to anyone else who works in the NHS. They genuinely love their job and are committed to helping those in need. But pressures around pay, stress, violence and the frustrations of delayed discharge are taking their toll. Over the last few years the NHS has lost thousands of professional, dedicated ambulance staff. It is down to both ambulance trusts and the government to keep those remaining staff in post. Now would be a good time to address the rising rate of those leaving and show them they really are valued as part of our fantastic health team.
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