Reducing emergency service access to a single number in France would be “an error” and would disrupt the entire emergency care system, urgent ambulance organisation the SAMU has said.
It comes after MPs voted on May 12 in favour of experimenting with the use of a single emergency number – the existing 112 European number – in a bid to simplify access to urgent services.
In France – along with the rest of the European Union – you can already call 112 to access the emergency services.
Yet, the numbers 15 for the SAMU, 18 for the fire brigade, and 17 for the police and gendarmerie (plus 196 for the coastguard), are still considered the main numbers to use in case of emergency.
The separation of services is intended to give a faster, more targeted response.
Dr François Braun, president of the union Samu-Urgences de France, has said that introducing a new system risks the “disorganisation of the entire hospital chain”.
The SAMU (Services d'Aide Medicale Urgente) is the main emergency service for serious incidents. It can send ambulances, as well as specialist medical teams.
Dr Braun told the AFP: “[The number 15] is a little gem that we must not lose.
“The first person to pick up a health call should be a health professional. Putting an intermediary between the SAMU and patients [will cause] a loss of time and muddy the message [because] often the first words [on the call] are the most important.”
The debate has resurfaced since MPs voted through plans to create a new single number, after the bill was proposed by MP Fabien Matras.
‘A waste of resources’
The SAMU union head is not the only one to oppose the plans.
In an open letter published in le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) yesterday (May 23), a number of health professionals warned that “dedicating 112 as a unique emergency number for all services will mean choosing a less efficient and even dangerous response, and it would be more expensive for the taxpayer”.
The letter continued: “While it is true that several countries operate with a single number, such as the famous American 911, our health system is quite different.
“In France, there are no qualified doctors among the fire brigade to ensure the medical regulation of calls. By calling a single number, the most likely response will be to send an ambulance, taking the person to the nearest hospital emergency room as a precaution.
“This would be a waste of resources, even though resources are limited.
“Furthermore, while welcoming all those who come to the hospital is our role, emergency rooms are often stretched by non-vital situations. There is no need to add to this high level of tension.
“The queues of ambulances in front of the emergency departments of our European neighbours, who use a single number, are a good warning. There is a better way: setting up a common number for the SAMU and local medical care.”
Dr Braun agreed, saying: “This [idea] would destabilise the entire care organisation. If it is not a professional who picks up, they will overreact. Without this separation, a call [to emergency services] will simply equal a call to send an ambulance, as [a taxi] transport to hospital.
“In March last year, the SAMU in France received more than 80,000 calls per day in the space of 48 hours. But we didn’t send 80,000 people to hospital!
“We give advice, we follow up...we do what we know how to do: medical help.”
A new number needed?
The topic has long been discussed in France.
In 2018, the debate resurfaced after Strasbourg woman Naomi Musenga died after her call to 17 was passed between emergency services. She dialled 17 for the police while suffering from severe stomach pains, but was then transferred to 18 for the pompiers, who passed her on to the SAMU at number 15.
The SAMU operator advised her to call the all-hours SOS Médecins doctor service. This was later judged to have been an error.
Ms Musenga died several hours later, after the SAMU finally took her to hospital. Her death prompted calls for a single number that would be easier to remember, and would be intended to save time between services.
And in late 2019, then-Health Minister Agnès Buzyn discussed the possible introduction of using a new number 15, to simplify hospital access.
At the time, La Fédération Nationale des Sapeurs-Pompiers de France (FNSPF) agreed with the idea.
In a statement, it 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.”
But the group Inter-Urgence also said, at the time, that it believed a new phone number would be “a false solution”. It said: “This will not ease congestion. People will still come into the hospital.”
Other groups are simply calling on the government not to introduce a new number at all, but to – as MPs have suggested – simply publicise the existing European emergency number 112 more.