France debates new emergency number to help hospitals

Some believe that France should have one single emergency number, such as 999 or 911

France may introduce a new emergency phone number in a bid to ease congestion in hospitals and help ensure people receive faster, more appropriate care for their condition, the government has said.

In an interview this week, health minister Agnès Buzyn discussed solutions to the problem of hospitals being stretched to breaking point by too many people going to Accident & Emergency.

Many people who seek medical help from hospitals do not need such a high level of care, and could be helped more appropriately and quickly by local GP surgeries or health clinics, Ms Buzyn said.

This would also ease up congestion in the hospitals themselves, giving overworked staff more time to dedicate to patients who have genuine medical emergencies.

A possible solution could be to make the existing 15 phone number for pre-hospital access only.

Members of the public who suspect they may need urgent, emergency hospital care would be invited to call the number, with trained respondents making the final call of whether to send an ambulance, to ask the patient to come to the hospital immediately, or to direct them instead to a local GP or clinic.

This idea of sorting patients before they even reach the hospital is based on the Danish system, Ms Buzyn said. She explained that in Denmark, “you never go into hospital on your own two feet”.

Yet, she added that this system was “very harsh, which I do not want”.

 

Pro-Danish model

The Danish model is prompting debate in France.

Professeur Philippe Juvin, head of emergency at the Pompidou hospital in Paris, is a notable voice in favour of the Danish system.

He has argued for a new 15 number, and said that in Denmark, their system saw a 25% reduction in people going to hospital, but an 11% rise in people using local medical services.

He said: “Therefore, 14% of patients [did not go to hospital] but went to see their pharmacist or waited until the pain had gone.”

Opposition and other solutions

However, the group Inter-Urgence - which is on strike today (Tuesday August 27) - believes that a new phone number would be “a false solution”. In a statement, the group said: “This will not ease congestion. People will still come into the hospital to see us.”

Other groups are calling on the government to simply use the current European emergency number, 112, and enforce stricter rules on it.

A medical spokesperson for La Fédération Nationale des Sapeurs-Pompiers de France (FNSPF) said: “Today, the number 15 has become a ‘catch-all’, and when you call in about a [genuine] heart attack, unfortunately it can take a long time to get through.

“We are proposing that people use this emergency number [the existing European number, 112], which must be picked up in less than 10 seconds. On top of that, we need medical help. The minister [Ms Buzyn] appears to be moving towards a sort of ‘second number 15’, and we are 100% in agreement.”

There is already a European number said to be for this purpose: the 116-117. In France, it is defined as “a national number with permanent access to ambulance care”. It also allows callers to reach out-of-hours medical staff.

Despite only being available in some regions in France, many doctors are in favour of its use.

Single number?

But some would prefer to consolidate all emergency numbers into one single number, such as 911 in the USA or 999 in the UK.

François Braun, president of Samu-Urgences de France, said: “People don’t know whether they are having angina or a heart attack. We must unite under one number whether for emergencies or not, to then offer people the appropriate care pathway.”

Currently in France, the urgent medical service the SAMU (Service d'Aide Medicale Urgente) can be reached on 15; the fire brigade on 18, the police and gendarmerie on 17, and the coastguard on 196.

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