Helicopter transporting trauma patient 'left waiting on helipad for 40 minutes' amid NHS switchboard crisis

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A helicopter transporting a major trauma victim was forced to wait for around 40 minutes on an Edinburgh hospital’s helipad while staff struggled to respond to the call for help.

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An employee at NHS Lothian’s 24/7 switchboard, based at the Lauriston centre, said this was just one example of how problems with the calls system, as well as staffing issues, are putting patients’ lives at risks across the city.

The call handler said staff in the call room, which takes up to 900 calls a day from across Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian, are “on their knees”.

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Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

She has also called for an inquiry into how the switchboard, which is the point of contact for anyone enquiring about outpatient appointments, patients and family members, as well as internal communications with emergency doctors and consultants, is run.

“People are dying and something needs done. In the last seven weeks I’ve seen only one person on taking calls quite regularly. That’s a clinical risk,” she said, adding that staff sickness on Friday and Sunday saw potentially hundreds of patient calls go unanswered.

"We are there to help save lives. If a patient arrives from a road crash or has had a heart attack, we get alerts from A&E. They tells us what consultants are needed and we put that out so they get paged and know where to go. We make sure people get the help they need,” she said.

"At the weekend a haemorrhage call went to St John’s and they didn’t know what to do with it. A doctor has now complained about how this was handled.

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“We’re only at half capacity in the team. Staff are on their knees. So, when there’s a sickness like at the weekend when someone was off with flu, it all falls apart.”

She called for the switchboard system to be fixed to prevent time being wasted when trying to find patients the help they need.

“If we try to connect patients to the right department, they could be going round and round for an hour, then get nowhere,” she said.

"I spoke to an A&E charge nurse last week who told me they are just too busy to answer calls. The senior managers have to get to grips with this situation. We have sent a number of emails about the problems and they have just been ignored. It’s time for an inquiry.”

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Miles Briggs, MSP for Lothian, described the situation as “deeply concerning” and said it showed "systemic failures in vital communication”.

“Patient safety can't be compromised,” he said.

"When people need urgent medical help from doctors or consultants that time between an alert being raised and the right medic getting to the patient needs to be maximised.”

He added: “The health board needs to provide clear answers and should investigate these issues urgently. Ministers should also be looking at providing reassurances on this, when yet another whistleblower feels they need to speak out it shows the severity of concerns."

Dr Tracey Gillies, medical director at NHS Lothian, said: “Our switchboard is managed 24/7 and there is a process to ensure it is effectively manned and operated at all times and during periods of staff absence. This can include diverting calls that are in a waiting queue to our other switchboard at St John’s Hospital, which operates the same handling systems. We aim to support our staff as much as possible and have recently recruited an additional three call handlers to the team who are taking up post later this month.”

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