I've been doing a fair amount of transfers between hospitals of late. Which is why this article on the BBC news site struck me a particularly timely.
But British Medical Association doctors said medics often had to rely on batteries to power vital equipment – and these were prone to failing.
Most ambulances do not have sockets for standard three-pin plugs. Instead, they have cigarette lighter-style sockets, which means hospital equipment such as ventilators, blood pressure monitoring and intravenous drug equipment cannot be plugged into the vehicle's power supply.
Doctors transferring patients are therefore required to connect the equipment to batteries. Newer ambulances are being brought in which do have three-pin plug sockets but, because many of the older vehicles will be on the roads for another five years, doctors believe action is need now.
Dr Dharmarajah, who works as an anaesthetist in London and as such is often involved in patient transfers, said a “simple solution” would be for ambulances to start using adaptors that would take the three-pin plug. The devices, known as inverters, can be bought for less than £100. But only a handful of NHS trusts are using them.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “It is for ambulance trusts locally to ensure they have the right equipment for the job. “Ambulance fleets are constantly being updated and new ambulances are able to support additional equipment.”
First I'd take slight offence to the suggestion that we cannot power equipment such as 'ventilators, blood pressure monitoring and intravenous drug equipment', ventilators are powered by the oxygen cylinder and we have our own blood pressure measurement machines.
What traditionally fails is the intravenous drug equipment – or as we call them, syringe pumps.
When you need to give a medication through a vein over a period of time the best way to do this is via a syringe driver – this machine essentially pushes the plunger of a syringe over a set period of time. Where we most often see these is when you are giving anaesthetic drugs to an intubated patient.
For as long as I've been ambulancing (yes, it's a word, I just made it up) I've been telling staff that if the patient is connected to one of these machines, then we need to take a spare as the internal battery will probably run out before we leave the gates of the hospital.
I was looking at the product sheet for the sort of equipment that we most often come across – the battery life on these is around three hours. Or rather it should be.
This is why this story annoys me, the hospitals, who should be looking after their equipment and servicing them and replacing the battery when it can no longer hold a charge, are blaming the ambulances for not spending the money to cover up the fact that this servicing isn't being done.
Like a laptop battery, these drivers need to have their batteries looked after or replaced. The hospitals aren't doing this because they are plugged into the wall at all times. Consequently the battery holds less and less of a charge, and so once you remove it from the mains supply it no longer has the advertised three hour battery life. More like a fifteen minute battery life.
The 'simple solution' of ambulance trusts having inverters for ambulances, is not that simple at all because it would have to come from our bank balance. We'd be paying for the failure of hospitals to maintain their own equipment.
You must remember that ambulance trusts are not connected to hospital trusts, and the way we are both funded means that, should I replace a syringe I've used with a fresh one from the A&E department, I am actually 'stealing'.
Remember also that the hospital trusts were very quick to drop the London ambulance service from their patient transport services as soon as private companies offered lower costs. Of course, those private companies can't transport critically ill patients, so the hospitals have to use us.
I laughed when I read that it costs 'less than £100' for the equipment to be able to plug in a mains three-pin plug. I'm riding around on ambulances with incomplete equipment, with cupboard doors held together with medical tape and with electrical systems that often have trouble powering all the normal things that ambulances need.
There is nothing stopping the hospital from investing 'just' £100 in an inverter for their transfer pack in order to power the equipment that they should be maintaining.
Heck, if I were that concerned an anaesthetist I'd buy my own – certainly I'm personally using equipment that I have bought myself on my ambulance, and I'm paid a fair bit less than a doctor.
Oh, and those 'newer ambulances'? Don't ask my boss about them, as the company that we were contracting to provide them has gone bust, leaving us without vehicles and also taking a fair chunk of our money with them.
I wonder if the people responsible for selecting that company have been disciplined?
Does this sound a bit whingy? It's only because the ambulance service is easy to blame for everything. It's a shame we didn't have a representative of the ambulance service in that story say 'If correctly maintained by the hospital trust the equipment that is used on transfers has a battery life of three hours. There should be no need for an ambulance service to have to cover for this shortfall in essential equipment maintenance.'