Patient death after ambulance delayed due to “extreme demand”

By ThinkReliability Staff

An inquest into the death of a young patient in London after a significant delay in the arrival of an ambulance released some disturbing details into the emergency process. We can perform a root cause analysis of the issues that led to the delay, and death, by capturing cause-and-effect relationships in a visual Cause Map.   As with many complex incidents, it will be helpful to capture the chronology of an event within a timeline. This timeline should not be confused with an analysis, but can be useful in organizing information related to the incident.

In this case, the patient, who had type 1 diabetes and had been feeling sick for more than a day, asked a friend to call an ambulance at about 5:00 pm on September 7, 2015. The friend dialed 111, which is the non-emergency medical helpline from the National Health Service. The initial call handler determined that the situation was not an emergency, but marked it for a 20-minute follow-up with a clinician. A clinical supervisor called back and spoke to the patient at 5:42 pm. She determined that it was an emergency that required an ambulance within 30 minutes. However, because it was known that the ambulance service was delayed, she asked the patient if she could get a friend to drive her to the hospital. The patient said she preferred an ambulance.

At this point it appears there was no contact until 10:15 pm, at which point a call-back was made to check on the patient’s ongoing symptoms. The friend at this time found the patient unconscious, having suffered cardiac arrest, and called 999, the emergency call system, at 10:23 pm. The ambulance arrived at 10:30 pm and took the patient to a hospital, where she died 5 days later.

At the inquest, the coroner testified that if the patient “had received definitive hospital care before she suffered a cardiac arrest in the evening of September 7, the likelihood is she would have survived.” Thus, from the perspective of the National Health Service, the patient safety goal is impacted because a death occurred that was believed to be at least partially due to an ambulance delay. Additional goals impacted are the patient services goal because of the delayed emergency treatment (the stated goal for the patient’s medical condition was 30 minutes, whereas the ambulance arrived nearly 4 hours after that goal). The schedule and operations goal is also impacted due to the insufficient capacity of both ambulances and the call system.

The Cause Mapping begins with an impacted goal and develops cause-and-effect relationships by asking “why” questions. The patient death was due to diabetic ketoacidosis, a severe complication of type 1 diabetes that may have resulted from an additional illness or underlying condition. As stated by the coroner, the delayed emergency treatment also resulted in the patient’s death. The ambulance that would take the patient to the hospital was delayed because the demand exceeded capacity. Demand was “extreme” (there were 200 other patients waiting for ambulances in London at the same time). The lack of capacity resulted from low operational resourcing, though no other information was available about what caused this. (This is a question that should be addressed by the service’s internal investigation.)

The patient was not driven to the hospital, which would potentially have gotten her treated faster and maybe even saved her life. The patient requested an ambulance and the potentially significant delay time was not discussed with the friend who had originally called. At the time of the first call-back, the estimated arrival time of an ambulance was not known. (By the time of the second call-back, it was too late.)

The second call-back was also delayed. Presumably this call was to update the patient’s symptoms as necessary and reclassify the call (to be more or less urgent) as appropriate. However, the demand exceeded supply for the call center as well as for ambulances. The call center received 300 calls during the hour of the initial call regarding this patient, which resulted in the service operations being upgraded to “purple-enhanced”. (This is the third-most serious category, the most serious being “black” or “catastrophic”.)   The change in operations meant that personnel normally assigned to call-backs were instead assigned to take initial emergency calls. Additionally, it’s likely the same “operational resourcing” issues that affected ambulance availability also impacted the call center.

Additional details of the causes related to the insufficient capacity of emergency medical services are required to come up with effective solutions. The ambulance service has completed its own internal investigation, which was presented to the family of the patient. The patient’s brother says, “I hope these lessons will be learnt and this case will not happen again” and the family says they will continue to raise awareness of the dangers of diabetes.

To view the initial analysis of this issue, including the timeline, click on “Download PDF” above. Or click here to read more.