Wayne McKay clinical team leader, Stephen Segasby chief operating officer, Susan Taylor head of alcohol policy for Balance

North East Ambulance Service alcohol-related call outs survey

In the run-up to one of the busiest times of the year for 999 control rooms, Balance has released the findings of a survey showing the effects of alcohol on our services

Alcohol related call outs are placing an avoidable demand on nine out of ten North East Ambulance Service staff. And more than three-quarters have been physically or verbally assaulted in the line of duty.

In the run up to December – one of the busiest times of year for 999 control rooms - Balance has released the findings of a new survey of nearly 150 frontline staff from the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) to show the effect alcohol has on the service.

The survey of NEAS ambulance employees found:

93% say dealing with intoxicated patients wastes valuable capacity and places avoidable demand on time and resources.

Nearly 1 in 3 say HALF or more of the incidences they dealt with over the Christmas period involved alcohol

Almost half of NEAS employees (47%) say that over 75% of call-outs for assaults were related to alcohol.

68% say over half of call-outs for domestic violence were related to alcohol

40% have received threat of injury from patients or members of the public at least SIX times, and 1 in 3 have received an actual injury or verbal abuse on as many occasions.

38% have received sexual harassment / assault whilst on duty from people under the influence of alcohol

Only 1 in 10 (12%) say that they have never been threatened by an intoxicated patient or member of the public whilst on duty

The findings mirror a previous survey from 2015 but marks a period in which alcohol consumption and the associated health harms rose among heavier drinkers during the pandemic[i] . Deaths from alcohol also hit a record high during 2020 [ii] with the worst rates in the North East[iii]

One unnamed female ambulance crew member said:

Whilst alcohol-related call-outs were clearly common during the first winter lockdown in 2020, ambulance crews noticed an increase in the number of call-outs involving alcohol once lockdown restrictions had been lifted, during November - December 2022, with another colleague commenting.”

Call handlers as well as front line crews face pressures, with time too often taken up dealing with intoxicated patients, with many emergency operation centre members reflecting on the difficulty this can cause when triaging patients.

Susan Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “The increased risky drinking we saw on the back of the pandemic is likely to lead to thousands of extra cases of disease and premature death. And for 999 crews it has created additional pressure on already stretched services.

“It is clear that NEAS employees feel that alcohol-related incidents have been increasing and this places a huge emotional and physical burden on them - both on and off duty.”

She added: “While many will blame individuals who drink too much for this, we need to remember that alcohol can be an addiction, which some people are struggling with. Heavier drinking since the pandemic is spilling over into more incidents impacting on our emergency services.

“It is wrong that people can buy a week’s worth of cheap strong alcohol for less than £5. And during the pandemic alcohol companies and supermarkets bombarded us with advertising, encouraging us to drink. Alcohol is still too cheap, too available and too heavily promoted and we need action at national level to protect health, our NHS and our emergency services.” 

Sexual harassment and abuse is also common for both ambulance crew member and EOC staff. Female respondents in particular are subject to abuse of this nature, with almost half (46%) reporting an incidence of sexual harassment, compared with 28% of male respondents.

It is worth highlighting that whilst patients themselves can be the cause of abuse or disruption, crews also find themselves subject to threatening behaviour and harm from family members and friends of the patient, making it difficult to provide appropriate care.

Stephen Segasby, chief operating officer at North East Ambulance Service, said: “The amount of assaults, both physical and verbal, we continue to see is worrying. The effects of alcohol and behaviours of people under the influence can have a huge impact on all of our staff and services.

“There is an emotional cost and a financial one for NEAS if staff are assaulted or abused. To do their best for patients in an emergency, our people need to be well and able to work safely.  Working under such conditions can take its toll on the mental and physical health of our people.  This can have a direct impact on the availability of the trained professionals we all rely upon in an emergency. Nobody comes to work in an emergency service like ours to be put at risk. 

“It is not acceptable for anyone to be abused or assaulted on duty. This can put added pressure on an already-pressurised service and it’s important that we don’t tolerate it.” 

What ambulance staff said:

‘I have attended various assaults, injuries, self-harm, suicide attempts due to alcohol mainly during night shifts. I have attended alcohol dependant regular callers numerous times who are unable to say why they called when the crew arrives.’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service.

‘Alcohol has contributed to most situations where I have felt unsafe at work’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 5-9 years of service

‘I have been threatened, verbally assaulted and had to deal with degrading inappropriate sexual comments. When dealing with people in licensed premises it’s often seen as a joke to people that their friend has become so intoxicated that an ambulance has been called.’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service

‘It takes so much longer to complete tasks due to intoxicated patients’ behaviours, including aggression and verbal abuse.’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service 

‘On a recent shift I spent nearly two hours on scene with a patient who was incapacitated due to alcohol. She was not suitable for hospital admission as she had no acute medical problems, however she was vulnerable due to her intoxication.

Male emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service

‘Drunk taxi’ is the first thing that comes to mind, lots of drunk ‘do gooders’ trying to be helpful... It’s so much bigger than just the patient, it’s the surroundings. There’s also other aspects, usually the patient vomits in the ambulance so we’re off the road for a clean.’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service

‘Alcohol adds fuel to the fire when it comes to any situation that gets out of control, as a student paramedic I have seen both sides of the story, working in the EOC and on an emergency ambulance.’

Male emergency operations centre member with 5-9 years of service.

‘Work becomes much busier by a certain time in the day/night relative to alcohol intoxication. Calls can become emotionally charged very quickly when alcohol is involved.’

Female emergency operations centre member with 0-4 years of experience 

I’ve been subject to an unprovoked attack by a bystander leading to several weeks of physio while unable to attend normal duties. Also needing counselling due to the emotional effects.

Male emergency ambulance crew member with 20+ years of service 

A drunk patient being verbally and physically abusive has caused me time off work, I had to go for counselling in my own time, has made me anxious around intoxicated patients.

Male emergency ambulance crew member with 5-9 years of service

‘I feel drugs and alcohol are the biggest contributors to my assaults I’ve had (inclusive of sexual) in the workplace.   I’ve been at cardiac arrests where I’ve have intoxicated family members pulling me off them, trying to punch and threaten as I’m trying to manage a resus.’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service

‘I had a patient’s highly intoxicated boyfriend towering over me screaming obscenities and threatening me because he wasn’t allowed into the hospital so he decided to direct his anger at me.’

Female emergency ambulance crew member with 0-4 years of service

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/alcohol-consumption-and-harm-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/monitoring-alcohol-consumption-and-harm-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-summary

[ii] https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n317


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