Do You Know When NOT to Call 911?

Survey Suggests Many People Call an Ambulance for Minor Medical Emergencies

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 22, 2011 -- One in three people don't understand when an ambulance is not necessary to deal with common medical situations, a survey indicates.

The survey shows most people know when to call an ambulance for life-threatening medical emergencies like a heart attack, but many don't understand when an ambulance is not needed for less urgent situations like a woman going into the early stages of labor.

"Abuse of ambulance services is high, and there is concern among healthcare professionals that misuse of ambulances places stress on services, which may jeopardize patient care," write researcher Helen M. Kirkby of the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and colleagues in Emergency Medicine Journal.

The results are based on an online survey of 150 adults in the U.K., but researchers suggest the findings may also apply to the U.S., where several previous studies have demonstrated that misuse of ambulance services is an issue.

When to Call for Help

The participants were presented with 12 common medical scenarios that may require urgent medical attention and asked to identify when they would call for an ambulance or take other action, such as seek medical advice, self-medicate, or do nothing.

The study showed almost all could correctly identify that an ambulance was needed in at least three out of the following five medical emergencies:

  • Middle-aged man with pains in his chest (possible heart attack)
  • Acetaminophen (painkiller) overdose
  • Older person slurring his words after not having drunk any alcohol (possible stroke)
  • Traffic accident victim
  • 4-year-old with high temperature and stiff neck (possible meningitis)

But researchers say one in four did not recognize the need to call for an ambulance in the case of a possible stroke.

When Not to Call an Ambulance

When it came to knowing when an ambulance was not needed, researchers found the results were not as promising. Most participants only correctly identified two out of the following seven non-urgent medical scenarios, and between 5% and 48% would have called for an ambulance in these cases:

  • Woman going into the early stages of labor
  • Man with chronic back pain who has run out of painkillers
  • Drunk man being sick (but not unconscious)
  • 3-year-old with a piece of Lego stuck in his nose
  • Single episode of blood in the urine
  • Toddler with a bruise on his head
  • Knife cut on the palm of the hand that is not bleeding heavily

"All of these scenarios may require medical advice or help, ranging from first aid at home to an urgent emergency department visit, but none requires ambulance attendance," write the researchers.

Researchers found those respondents who had some first aid training were more likely to correctly identify medical emergencies and suggest more widespread first aid training may help prevent unnecessary ambulance calls.

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SOURCES: Kirkby, H. Emergency Medicine Journal, published online Feb. 21, 2011.News release, British Medical Journals.

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