An evaluation of the appropriateness of emergency medical service (EMS) responses in the eThekwini health district of KwaZulu-Natal
Newton, Paul Richard
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Introduction: The Emergency Medical Service (EMS) is required to respond to cases of life threatening illness or injury which may later be found to be non-emergent thus creating a mismatch between the dispatch of limited EMS resources and actual patient need. This study proposed that such a mismatch presently exists among South African urban EMS systems resulting in unacceptably high levels of inappropriate emergency responses. The purpose of this study therefore, was to evaluate the appropriateness of EMS responses in comparison to patient needs in a South African urban EMS system. Methods: All emergency cases dispatched over a 72 hour period at the Emergency Medical Communication Centre (EMCC) of the eThekwini Emergency Medical and Rescue Service (EMRS), a public sector urban EMS system, were prospectively enrolled in a quantitative study employing a descriptive, comparative design. Computer generated Vehicle Control Forms (VCF) containing dispatch data were matched and compared with Patient Report Forms (PRF) containing epidemiological and clinical data to describe the nature and extent of inappropriate responses based on patient need. Data were subjected to simple descriptive analysis and comparisons were analysed with correlations and chi-square. The Pearson's г and Spearman's rho were used to establish significance between more than two variables. Results : A total of 1689 cases were enrolled in the study of which 1385 met the inclusion criteria; 304 cases were excluded due to incomplete or duplicated data. The demand for EMS resources fluctuated widely throughout the day with levels peaking at midday and declining sharply after midnight. The median response time across all priorities was 56 minutes (IQR 59min) with just under half (46.4%) of all cases having a response time of more than an hour and almost one in ten (9.5%) exceeding 2½ hours. Significant variations existed between dispatch and on-scene priority settings and category descriptors most notable of which was seen in the highest priority ‘red code’ category which constituted more than 56% of all cases dispatched yet accounted for less than 2% on-scene (p <0.001). Conversely, over 80% of ‘red code’ responses actually required a lower priority response. Similarly, significant discrepancies were seen in the allocation of resources compared to the interventional needs of patients where it was shown that more than 58% of all cases required no interventions and just under 36% required only basic life support (BLS) level interventions (p <0.001). Of those patients triaged as ‘red code’ on-scene, less than 12% were initially allocated an appropriate Advanced Life Support (ALS) level of response and, of particular concern, only 7% of patients found to be dead or ‘blue code’ on-scene were initially dedicated a ‘red code’ response. Conclusion: South African urban EMS systems are presently unable to meet the needs of patients in terms of demand and matching resources to patient needs with evidently high levels of inconsistent and inappropriate responses resulting in sub-optimal use of limited resources.