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Variation in the delivery of telephone advice by emergency medical services: a qualitative study in three services.


An emergency ambulance is not always the appropriate response for emergency medical service patients. Telephone advice aims to resolve low acuity calls over the phone, without sending an ambulance. In England, variation in rates of telephone advice and patient recontact between services raises concerns about inequities in care. To understand this variation, this study aimed to explore operational factors influencing the provision of telephone advice. This is a multimethod qualitative study in three emergency medical services in England with different rates of telephone advice and recontact. Non-participant observation (120 hours) involved 20 call handlers and 27 clinicians (eg, paramedics). Interviews were conducted with call handlers, clinicians and clinician managers (n=20). Services varied in their views of the role of telephone advice, selection of their workforce, tasks clinicians were expected and permitted to do, and access to non-ambulance responses. Telephone advice was viewed either as an acceptable approach to managing demand or a way of managing risk. The workforce could be selected for their expertise or their inability to work 'on-the-road'. Some services permitted proactive identification of calls for a lower priority response and provided access to a wider range of response options. The findings aligned with telephone advice rates for each service, particularly explaining why one service had lower rates. Some of the variation observed can be explained by operational differences between services and some of it by access to alternative response options in the wider urgent and emergency care system. The findings indicate scope for greater consistency in the delivery of telephone advice to ensure the widest range of options to meet the needs of different populations, regardless of geographical location. © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2019. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.