Advising with empathy and experience

Further problems at Secamb.

An ambulance trust is being investigated after reports of bullying and harassment and an "unfit for purpose" dispatch system.

Long call waits and out-of-date maps are said to have affected the service of South East Coast Ambulance Trust (Secamb), which is being investigated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The claims follow criticism of the trust, which covers Sussex, Surrey and Kent, for delaying sending help for certain calls to allow extra time for patient assessments.

Trust chairman, Tony Thorne, resigned in March, and chief executive Paul Sutton left in May this year.

The latest concerns centre on the computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) used to send out ambulances to emergency calls. Staff have said that there have been problems with the system with calls not being answered promptly and crews having out-of-date maps.

Initial findings during a CQC inspection included concerns that the system did not appear to have been updated to provide "the most contemporaneous record of addresses."

In addition, the CQC it had "received a number of calls from staff following the inspection indicating a continuing culture of bullying and harassment" and that "accountability is absent in many areas.”

The BBC has said that it had been told by call handlers  that they were "missing" 1,000 calls a week, meaning callers were held on the line for longer than the five-second target.                                         

Ambulances were also widely missing key arrival time targets of eight minutes for the most serious cases, which include patients not breathing and cardiac arrests.

Staff said that bullying had contributed to the problems, while the CQC said: "The number of outstanding grievances within the executive team is also a serious concern."

Linda Southouse, who worked at the trust as an emergency call handler, said: "You could be in the middle of a call and the computer system will fail - you have to go into the emergency screen, which is not conducive to good practice - it doesn't help you with your call. I ended up in tears most days.”

GMB union official, Paul Maloney, said: "The trust has lost the confidence of the public and its staff. There should now be a public inquiry run by the health service select committee in parliament.”

A Secamb statement said: "We recognise that system issues can cause frustration for staff but these matters are subject to review.

"Fortunately critical issues with the system are rare and the impact on patients is minimal. However, the trust is keen to improve the CAD's reliability and is working hard to address this."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We await the full CQC report but it seems clear that poor leadership at Secamb has put safety at risk, which is totally unacceptable. Patients and staff deserve better.”