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Teenager Dies Of Asthma Attack After Delay In Sending Ambulance

An emergnecy call handler's actions affected the subsequent dispatch of an ambulance (file image). Photo: 123RF

An ambulance call handler has been found in breach of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights after a teenager died from an asthma attack due to the delay in the ambulance being dispatched.

In 2020, the call handler took a call from a mother whose teenage daughter was having an asthma attack. He asked whether her daughter was breathing, to which she replied, "Yip, probably 25 percent maybe, yeah". He then selected 'yes' in the software that determines triage categorisation. However, he failed to clarify what she had meant by 25 percent.

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He then asked her if her daughter had any difficulty speaking in between breaths. She turned to her daughter, and asked "Can you talk in between your breaths?" and she replied "No, no". But he interpreted this to mean that she was able to speak between breaths, and selected 'no' in the software.

This affected the subsequent dispatch of an ambulance to her location.

Just under 20 minutes later, when the teenager's condition had deteriorated further, the family made a second call to 111 and an ambulance was dispatched immediately.

However, by the time they arrived, she was unresponsive and not breathing.

She died shortly afterwards.

Deputy Health and Disability Commissioner Vanessa Caldwell found the call handler breached Right 4 of the Code, for not providing services of an appropriate professional standard.

"Although the call-handler asked the correct questions, according to the software, he failed to correctly record and classify two questions regarding the teen's breathing and failed to clarify the answers with the teen's mother," she said.

As he is no longer working as a call handler, Caldwell only recommended that he provide a written apology to her whānau.

She recommended the ambulance service the call handler worked should ask the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch whether the question on difficulty speaking between breaths needs to be reframed to eliminate the possibility of the caller inverting the question.

Caldwall also recommended the use of an anonymised version of the Health and Disability Commission report to conduct a training session for call handlers with particular focus on managing calls where a patient is experiencing an asthma attack.

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