Ambulance service short of millions

19:34, Jan 19 2014

Emergency charity St John is experiencing high demand for its stretched services. OLIVIA CARVILLE reports.

St John is being forced to reshuffle its limited ambulance resources in an attempt to shoulder ballooning demand and multimillion-dollar funding shortfalls.

Over the past five years, its annual operating loss has nearly doubled to $14 million, while its emergency call-outs have climbed more than 12 per cent, to a record 388,446 last year.

New Zealand's ageing population, a rise in chronic diseases and rising costs of running ambulances will continue to stretch St John's resources and push it further into the red.

Sweeping changes are being rolled out across the organisation to mitigate the pressure.

Minor 111 calls, including headaches, pains and allergies, will likely be responded to with one paramedic in a car rather than a double-crewed ambulance.


Demand profiling for each call will determine how many paramedics are required and whether an ambulance, rapid response vehicle or single-crewed car would be most appropriate, St John Canterbury district operations manager Pete Cain said.

All patient reports would be uploaded electronically and systems would be continuously updated to ensure ambulances on the road went straight to the next call-out or returned to a high- demand station, he said.

Two new ambulance stations will be created in Canterbury and the five existing inner-city stations may also be moved to optimise resources.

"We are looking at future planning and the ageing population and we are trying to find a solution to this," Cain said.

"We have got to take the resources we have and make them work better and more effectively."

St John is a charitable organisation that provides emergency medical assistance to New Zealanders 24/7 and also runs community-based health services.

It receives 80 per cent of its funding from the Ministry of Health and the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).

The remaining 20 per cent is met through commercial ventures, such as first aid training courses, but mostly by fundraising.

This year, the organisation had a fundraising shortfall of $30m, which was evenly divided across its three regions - Northern, Central and South.

The regional fundraising targets have doubled from $5.76m in 2008/09 to $10m this financial year.

The biggest loss to St John stems from its ambulance service.

It costs about $1m a year to fund a double-crewed ambulance, with each call-out costing around $600, Cain said.

St John Canterbury receives about 140 emergency call-outs a day, ranging from critical patients who have stopped breathing, and car accidents with multiple unconscious patients, to people who ring up about a stubbed toe.

"Over the years our job has changed. We used to be only for high acuity and traumatic injuries, but now people phone 111 because they know they will always be able to talk to someone and get a response. We have to reconfigure our services to meet that demand."

St John is shifting its focus from emergency response only to also offering in-home care and working alongside primary health organisations, he said.

"The future is going to be very different. We have a finite amount of resources and all have to be used appropriately, so there will be a lot of change."

St John New Zealand's underlying surplus was $1.2m for the 2012/13 financial year, after removing the impact of the earthquakes, representing a minimal return compared to $4.3m the previous year.

The Press