Sheet-carrying ambulances - Vehicles used to transport hospital supplies instead of emergency patients
The sirens blare in the thick of the Kingston morning traffic and red lights flash signalling to drivers to give way to the emergency vehicle.
As motorists pull to the kerb, the ambulance zigzags through the maze of metal, hurriedly making its way to the hospital.
On some occasions, strapped in the ambulance is not a patient but stacks of linen being transported for sterilisation.
Health-sector officials and practitioners revealed during a Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s North Street offices that some of the emergency vehicles are being used for purposes other than for which they were acquired.
“That was never what an ambulance was designed for,” said president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association (JMDA), Dr Elon Thompson, as he denounced the practice. “The ambulances are to transport patients, whether pre-hospital, who are in the hospital, or who are probably leaving hospital.”
WEAR AND TEAR
Junior Opposition Spokesman on Health, Dr Shane Alexis, expressed concern about the wear and tear of the units, some of which he said lack basic items such as defibrillators.
“Ambulances, especially at many public health institutions, are all-purpose vehicles. I’m not saying that they’re transporting necessarily dangerous or hazardous materials in them – doesn’t mean it’s not happening – but I am saying that ambulances are [being used as] utility vehicles when they should be dedicated for emergencies,” Alexis lamented.
JMDA’s Thompson confirmed that there is current ambulance shortage, which has been a perennial issue.
“The next thing is, are the ambulances fully equipped? ... Our pre-hospital care system that is established now, it’s just very haphazard. We don’t have a well-defined pre-hospital care system currently and it’s an issue that needs to be looked at,” Thompson said.
In response to the claims, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton said that he was not aware of the practice but noted that ambulances are “heavily used due to the high level of trauma in our society – road accidents”.
He continued: “The rules certainly don’t allow our ambulances to provide logistics support for general supplies, and where this practice is taking place, regional, parish and hospital leadership would need to ensure its discontinuation.”
Any shortage of vehicles to transport supplies should be addressed by the regional health authorities, he said.
In an emailed response to questions posed by The Gleaner, the South East Regional Health Authority said there are five ambulances in its fleet serving nine hospitals in Kingston, St Andrew, and St Thomas.
“On average, we receive 30 calls per week, which means that we respond to approximately 120 calls on a weekly basis. ... We engage other facilities and our external ambulance service to assist,” the response read.
The Gleaner also enquired about the partnership with private ambulance companies; the oversight the ministry provides, as well as the provision of ambulances for large or special events.
Those responses, requested five weeks ago, were not available up to press time.
Hospitals served by the fleet of ambulances in the South East Regional Health Authority:
Bustamante Hospital for Children
Kingston Public Hospital
Victoria Jubilee Hospital
National Chest Hospital
Sir John Golding Rehabilitation
Princess Margaret Hospital
Spanish Town Hospital