BACKGROUND: In 1996-97 there were 623,000 emergency (999) calls made to the London Ambulance Service (LAS) and this represents a 30% increase over the previous five years. The reasons for this increase, which is also observed nationally, remain unknown. It has been suggested that some callers may be using the 999 service "inappropriately" but no data are available from the ambulance service. OBJECTIVE: To describe the workload of the emergency ambulance service in London with specific reference to the nature and characteristics of 999 calls, to determine who dials 999 and why, and to establish the number and types of calls that could most appropriately be dealt with by other agencies. DESIGN: A one week census of all emergency calls responded to by the LAS. SETTING: Sixty eight LAS stations. METHODS: Collation of all routine LAS incident forms (LA4) including the classification of the crews' free text description of the incident. This was supplemented by a detailed workload questionnaire for 25% of calls. RESULTS: There were 10,921 calls responded to from 29 April to 5 May 1996. The census showed that the daily number of calls was highest on Saturday and lowest on Wednesday with about half being made during normal general practitioner (GP) working hours. Half of all calls were for women and one third were for people aged > or = 65. Accidents were the commonest type of incident (24%). The remainder comprised various medical conditions such as respiratory, cardiac, and obstetric problems. In 1.5% of calls there was no illness, injury, or assistance required and 5% were for "general assistance" and mostly concerned people aged > or = 65. The workload survey indicated that two thirds of incidents occurred at home and 70% of callers had not tried to contact a GP before dialing 999. In the professional opinion of the responding crew, 60% of calls required a 999 response, with the remainder thought more appropriately dealt with by other services such as primary care, psychiatric services, and social services. CONCLUSIONS: This study suggests that while the majority of 999 calls were "appropriate", part of the 999 workload could be dealt with by other services. More research is required to clarify why people contact the 999 service for non-emergency incidents and also to establish the views of GPs and other agencies as to the role and function of the IAS.
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