A scheme to reduce A&E visits in Sunderland has been extended after proving to be a success.
The pilot scheme, run by North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), has helped more than 800 patients avoid lengthy waits in hospital.
Instead, NEAS's Paramedic Pathfinder has helped to refer patients to alternative care providers in Sunderland, including GPS, Urgent Care Centres, the Recovery at Home Team, the Palliative Care Team and the Emergency Ambulatory Care Unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital.
The pilot started last September, with 815 patients having avoided trips to hospital as a result of it.
The scheme has now been extended by 12 months, with NEAS looking at ways to expand it. It is funded by the All Together Better Sunderland vanguard partnership.
Libby Hodges, unit manager for emergency ambulatory care at City Hospitals Sunderland, said: “We know paramedics have a huge amount of knowledge and experience, which they are now able to utilise much more by using their clinical judgement alongside the Pathfinder tool, making the whole process quicker, smoother and ultimately better for our patients.
“The types of patients we see in our department are people who need to be assessed but don’t require emergency care.
"By allowing them direct access to our department, paramedics are able to bring patients straight to us for assessment, avoiding a wait in a busy A&E for the patient and taking the pressure off the emergency department.”
Ahead of the introduction of the pathfinder triage tool for patient assessments, about 100 NEAS ambulance clinicians were trained to use it.
Rather than make a definitive diagnosis, it enables clinicians to recognise symptoms and make accurate face-to-face assessments before choosing the most suitable place for treatment.
The pressure on Sunderland's A&E departments has been lightened as a result.
Lesley Dobson, matron for the Urology Department at City Hospitals Sunderland, added: “A patient going into the Emergency Department would have to be assessed by a nurse and then a medical review, followed by a further wait for a urologist, all of which could take some time.
"It could be a problem such as a blocked catheter, which isn’t a life threatening emergency but is extremely painful and uncomfortable for the patient.
"By being admitted directly to the department, they are seen and treated much quicker.”
Paul Aitken Fell, Consultant Paramedic at the North East Ambulance Service said: “With a 47% increase in emergency admissions over the past 15 years, we urgently need to look at ways to reduce this figure.
"That’s why we’re delighted to secure more funding to enable our Pathfinder scheme to continue for another 12 months.
“Pathfinder isn’t a silver bullet but it’s definitely a start.
"The scheme is working particularly well in Sunderland where there’s a good choice of alternative care providers and it’s great to see more than 800 patients avoiding a lengthy wait in A&E and getting the care most appropriate to their needs.
“Our ambulance clinicians will err on the side of caution when taking patients with non-critical conditions to A&E but Pathfinder is giving them the confidence and endorsement to choose another option and ensure patients get the right care, in the right place, at the right time."
Philip Foster, chief officer of Sunderland Care and Support and Chair of the All Together Better vanguard partnership, said: “All Together Better Sunderland – the programme bringing health and social care services together for local residents – is funding this work to expand the Pathfinder scheme even further.
“The scheme provides a seamless link to a range of services available in the community to paramedic clinicians, as an alternative to taking a patient to the Accident and Emergency Department.
"These Out of Hospital services include the 24/7 Recovery at Home a service that offers short term specialist support for patients and the Community integrated Health and Social Care teams focused on enabling the patient to be treated and supported in the community if they do not need to be in hospital.
“Using the Pathfinder scheme, NEAS and All Together Better Sunderland can increase safe care, closer to home and avoid unnecessary admission into hospital."