Please login or register to print this page.


Emergency Medicine Journal

Case Reports, Lead Article

1 in 3 don’t know when ambulance is not needed

Fewer than a third of people understand when situations do not require emergency services, according to research published online in the Emergency Medicine Journal.(1)

The authors base their findings on the responses of 150 people to 12 hypothetical scenarios, seven of which would not require an ambulance to be called. 

 Respondents were asked whether they would or would not dial 999 for an ambulance and, if not, what other options they would take, such as seeking medical advice from elsewhere, self medication, or doing nothing.

emergency-2The scenarios included a range of conditions from chronic back pain and being drunk, to going into labour and a suspected stroke.

 Two thirds (68) of participants had undertaken some first aid training; 37 had medical training; and 45 had neither. Most were aged between 18 and 44.

Most participants correctly identified when an ambulance was not needed in only two out of the seven scenarios, and between 5% and 48% would have dialled 999.

The authors asserts that much “abuse of ambulance services” results from a lack of first aid awareness, and that those with some basic training were less likely to call inappropriately in all scenarios. They did not find any participant characteristics were predictive of calling an ambulance inappropriately once confounders were taken into account.

The scenarios in which an ambulance was not required were: a woman going into labour; a man with chronic back pain who has run out of painkillers; a drunk man being sick; a three year old with piece of Lego stuck in their nose; a single episode of blood in the urine; a toddler with a bruise on their head; and a knife cut on the palm of a hand that is not bleeding heavily.

“All of these scenarios may require medical advice or help, ranging from first aid at home to an urgent emergency department visit, but none requires ambulance attendance,” say the authors, adding: “It is highly likely that there is confusion between the need for medical treatment and the need for an ambulance”.

The study also found that one in four people don’t realise that an ambulance is required for a suspected stroke, prompting the authors to comment that the finding is “concerning”. They question the efficacy of the government’s recent stroke awareness campaign (FAST), which was launched in 1999.

Almost all participants correctly identified when an ambulance was needed in three out of five scenarios. These were: a middle aged man with sudden severe pains in his chest and arm (heart attack); a paracetamol overdose; an older person slurring their words after not having drunk any alcohol; a road traffic accident victim; a four year old with a high temperature and a stiff neck.


1. Kirkby HM, Roberts LM. Inappropriate 999 calls: an online pilot survey. Emerg Med J 2011;doi:10.1136/emj.2010.092346
Available online:

Published on: March 3, 2011

Members Area

Log in or Register now.

 For healthcare professionals only
Learning sky



Subscribe to our RSS feed


Sign up for our regular email newsletters & be the first to know about fresh articles and site updates.


    None Found


  • ArrhythmiaAlliance
  • Stars
  • Anticoagulation Europe
  • Atrial Fibrillation Association

You are not logged in

You need to be a member to print this page.
Sign up for free membership, or log in.

You are not logged in

You need to be a member to download PDF's.
Sign up for free membership, or log in.