Paramedics across the West Country facing a Christmas peak in calls are pleading with the public to only dial 999 in an emergency.
South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT) says to help manage demand, people could use other services for less urgent conditions.
During 2017, across the West Country, there have been 23 court convictions against frequent callers who have called into the 999 ambulance control hubs.
Penalties include Criminal Behavioural Orders, Community Orders, Fines, Court Injunctions and Custodial Sentences.
SWASFT has a dedicated frequent caller team that works with patients to manage their demand on the service.
The team follows a four- stage process from identifying a frequent caller through to an evaluation and review and, ultimately, a possible court hearing.
Not everyone defined as a frequent caller is ‘abusing’ the system.
There are legitimate cases where someone may be at the end of their life or have a complex, ongoing medical condition meaning that frequent access to emergency care is required.
The circumstances surrounding each individual identified as being a frequent caller are reviewed to ensure that no further help or support can be put in place to prevent the regular calls.
A frequent caller is defined nationally as an adult (18 years plus) who makes five or more emergency calls related to individual episodes of care in a month, or 12 or more emergency calls related to individual episodes of care
in three months, from a private dwelling.
In the six-month period (April to September 2017) SWASFT handled 575,163 A&E 999 emergency calls, of which 44,121 were by frequent callers.
It is estimated that 60 hours of clinicians’ time are lost to frequent callers across the Trust per day.
Dr Simon Scott-Hayward, medical director Primary Care, for SWASFT, said: “The Trust takes the issue of frequent callers very seriously.
“Those who are not in genuine need can use precious resources that should be allocated to those who are in a life-threatening time critical condition.
“Callers can be found guilty of abusing the system and causing annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety through the Misuse of Communications Act for repeated inappropriate calls to 999 services. We seek prosecutions of people found to be abusing the system because it can, and does, put other people’s lives at risk.”
A previous frequent caller, who was helped by the multi-agency team, but wants to remain anonymous, said: “I have come to my senses as to how busy they [the ambulance service] are; I was calling unnecessarily due to anxiety and my health worries.”
Another frequent caller said: “I haven’t had any alcohol since February and my life is different, much better, I can live again and enjoy myself.”
“If they are not medically unwell people should seek help from someone else like the AA or GP. It’s hard when you are scared and don’t know what to do.”