CAMPAIGNS: Public Sector - PR bid to cut non-urgent A&E 999 calls

London Ambulance Service has expressed concern over the increased number of inappropriate calls it receives. These calls have the potential to misdirect resources and block phone-lines so that genuine emergency calls are obstructed.

A telephone survey of Londoners and residents of other UK cities found strong evidence of inappropriate use.

Londoners fared worse and 20 per cent admitted to bypassing the primary healthcare system and imposing themselves on the NHS emergency services. They are also three times more likely to dial 999 when they have flu-like symptoms.

Sixty per cent of respondents knew nothing about alternatives to dialling 999, such as NHS Direct. Also, it seems that most people in London and elsewhere have little knowledge of what information 999-line operators need to send an ambulance.

Objectives

To decrease the number of inappropriate calls and increase awareness of how to use emergency services most effectively.

Strategy and Plan

The campaign set out to increase public awareness by producing and distributing posters to A&E departments, local councils and doctors' surgeries. It also used ads on the Underground and in other locations. In addition, credit cards were produced featuring the NHS Direct number, resuscitation advice needed in the event of dialling 999, and some facts aimed at dispelling some of the misconceptions revealed by the phone survey.

Measurement and Evaluation

Following a press launch on 17 December, the campaign received coverage nationally and locally. During the week of launch, editorial coverage was achieved on 39 separate radio and TV shows.

LBC/ITN radio provided ad slots for two months and a week-long editorial feature during the launch. Re-enactments of genuine 999 calls were made by LBC/ITN and sent to other radio stations, which used them in news stories. In addition, LAS chief executive Peter Bradley and a paramedic appeared live on the BBC's Breakfast programme to spread awareness.

BBC Watchdog's Health Check covered the campaign on 28 January, following a feature in parliamentary journal, The House Magazine, the previous week.

This was in tandem with a lobbying effort in which the LAS press and public affairs department sent a press pack for the campaign to parliamentary under-secretary of state for health Hazel Blears. The issue was raised as a parliamentary question by the minister on 15 January.

Cranfield University will carry out a quantitative evaluation in the form of a follow-up survey later this year.

Results

In January 2001, non-urgent calls accounted for 23 per cent of LAS's emergency workload. In January 2002, this had fallen to 21 per cent.

Operationally, this is considered to be a significant initial fall as, overall, the number of 999 calls has increased by almost seven per cent year-on-year since 1994.

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