The woes within Scotland’s health service are well documented. Much of the discourse centres around hospitals, from the conditions for patients to the shortage of nursing numbers.
Quite understandably, when we take the temperature of the NHS, the bricks and mortar of hospitals and GP surgeries are the first place we look. But there’s an organisation within the health system which finds itself even more on the frontline that those working in wards and accident and emergency departments.
The Scottish Ambulance Service is often the first on the scene, and the organisation upon which patients of all kinds depend on the most.
But as we debate waiting lists and delayed discharge, we risk forgetting an impending crisis facing our paramedics.
Over the weekend, the Scottish Conservatives revealed how 44 journeys by the ambulance’s Patient Transport Service are cancelled every day. These are vital arrangements to take vulnerable people to hospital, not under blue light, but to appointments they would otherwise struggle to get to and from.
The 16,000 journeys cancelled last year weren’t scrapped by the patients, they were decisions made by an ambulance service which is struggling to cope with both its emergency and non-emergency commitments.
Bosses themselves said the three reasons for journeys being cancelled were when “demand exceeds the number of available resources; unexpected staff absences; and when necessary special equipment wasn’t available”. In other words, when the resources the Scottish Ambulance Service should have had its disposal were unavailable.
The emergency side of things is struggling too. Latest board papers reveal just 75 per cent of cardiac arrest patients were seen to within eight minutes, when the target is 80 per cent.
And in life-threatening situations, just 62 per cent of people were reached in that crucial timeframe, the aspiration being 75 per cent.
It’s also taking ambulances longer to get in and out of hospital, from an average of 23 minutes 52 seconds two years ago, to 27 minutes 25 seconds now. This is not only uncomfortable for patients, but means it’s taking more time for that vehicle, and its paramedics, to get back on the streets and available for work.
All this is occurring while staff sickness rates hover around the seven per cent mark, significantly above the national average.
The Scottish Government will no doubt argue it is doing its best to ensure the Scottish Ambulance Service is properly funded, and that ministers are completely committed to providing a world-class emergency service.
But even now bosses are warning of bleak financial times ahead. Board members were told at the end of last month: “We still face a considerable challenge to identify and manage ways to deliver recurrent cost savings to ensure financial balance this year and in future years.”
It sounds like the organisation itself is pessimistic about the prospect of things getting better.
The SNP has been in sole charge for more than a decade now – that’s more than enough time to ensure one of the NHS’s most critical components is properly resourced, and fit to serve the patients of Scotland.
Miles Briggs is Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary and a Lothians MSP