Frequent callers are costing the NHS £20 million each year Ambulances were called from the same house more than 2,000 times in one year as stretched 999 services are being bombarded by time-wasters and lives put at risk.
Health bosses have warned ‘frequent callers’ are costing the NHS around £20 million a year and risk placing the lives of genuine callers in danger.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal one property in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, was the source of 2,077 emergency calls in the last year.
But just five calls from the property in this period resulted in someone being taken to hospital.
The site was one of nine homes where an ambulance has been called more than 500 times in the last 12 months, leaving services that are already stretched under incredible pressure.
In Portsmouth – the area with the next highest number of repeat callers – ambulances were called from one home 1,714 times – but a patient needed to be taken to hospital just once.
The ambulance trusts has warned frequent callers “make it harder for us to reach others with more serious or potentially life-threatening conditions”.
Jason Scott, a research associate at Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society, who is studying the problem said callers are often people with complex issues who use 999 as a ‘last resort’ after other services have closed.
He said: “We’ve found that frequent callers plummet well below the average from around 9am but when it gets to 5pm or 6pm at night that’s when you see the levels soar.
“It’s often because they don’t have access to other services at this time and use the ambulance service as a ‘last resort’.
“It’s not at all unique to the UK and we’ve seen the same patterns in Spain, Australia and other countries.
“The biggest misconception is that these a malicious or vexatious calls. Often these are people suffering from mental health conditions or social conditions such as isolation whose needs aren’t being met elsewhere in the system.”
Official NHS figures show it costs ambulance trusts around £8 to answer each 999 call, £155 to provide treatment at home and £255 to take a patient to hospital. It means the most persistent callers are costing NHS around £30,000-a-year each making calls where an ambulance isn’t needed.
But ambulance trusts stressed the majority of repeat calls are not malicious callers and often suffer from mental health issues, anxiety or social isolation.
London Ambulance Service (LAS) said around 1,600 people made 50,000 emergency calls in the capital last year – costing the service £4.4 million each year.
David Fletcher, who received a Darzi fellowship to study the issue of frequent callers to LAS, said: “We recognise that people identified as being frequent users of our service often have complex health and social needs.
“Therefore, we work closely with other health and social care organisations to identify, manage and look after frequent callers.”
A spokeswoman for Yorkshire Ambulance Service said the team, which includes mental health specialists, identifies callers who need help and try to put alternative care plans in place to meet their need.
She said: “Our Frequent Callers Team has been pro-actively managing high-intensity users of the 999 service across Yorkshire since April 2015 and is committed to supporting patients to access the services best placed to meet their needs.”
However in some cases, fed-up ambulance trusts have launched prosecutions against other people identified as malicious callers.
Mariette Mcharg, from Barry, South Wales, was jailed for 24 weeks in July after making more than 400 emergency calls over a 24 month period.
She also visited hospitals and GP surgeries almost 250 times, costing the taxpayer around £80,000.
Among the list of more bizarre calls were reports made over squirrels, tight shoes and people wanting to use ambulances as a free taxi service.
The East of England Ambulance Service last year released a recording of a man in Epping, Essex, who dialled 999 asking for an ambulance for a squirrel that had been hit by a car.
In the minute-long conversation the man can be heard telling the controller that he has just seen something getting hit by a car.
The controller then dispatches ambulance crews to the scene, but continues talking to them man in the hope of getting more information.
However, it soon becomes apparent that the call is not what it seems when the caller admits the ‘victim’ is a squirrel.
The controller then says to the man: “So you thought you’d call 999 for a car that hit a squirrel?
The man replied: “Not now because he’s dead now, innit.”
A man in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, told a 999 operator: “My feet hurt after wearing too small shoes” before requesting an ambulance.
Ambulance trusts have also frequently reported being called by people who say they need to go to hospital or a GP but don’t have the money to get there themselves.
UK’s 10 most frequent 999 ambulance callers
(Number of times an ambulance dispatched and number of times patient taken to hospital in brackets)
Sheffield – 2077 (86, 5)
Portsmouth – 1714 (13, 1)
Doncaster – 838 (293, 114)
Maidstone – 595 (60, 5)
Soham – 555 (200, 81)
Stevenage – 555 (172, 23)
Hove – 521 (24, 14)
Nottinghamshire – 514 (data not provided)
Swansea – 511 (118,10)
Southend – 473 (39, 16)