The Belgian association of emergency doctors, BeCEP, has come out against plans to introduce a new number to call for medical help in situations where the circumstances do not merit the use of the emergency number.
The new number 1733 has been on the table since 2016, and is currently expected to come online in 2021. The idea is to divert non-urgent calls away from the standard numbers, which would be reserved for actual emergencies.
The doctors are not opposed to the idea in principle. “We have nothing against the number per se, and we support the argument for better channelling of services,” said Jan Stroobants, president of the association. “But the way things look at the moment, it’s going to go wrong.”
Whenever a caller dials 1733, they are put through to an operator or call-taker. “They then look up Doctor Google and decide if the patient needs to stay home, go to the emergency room or have the doctor come out,” Stroobants explained to the VRT. “That’s the part we have a major problem with. That is not the correct way to work. In fact, that’s a very dangerous situation.”
The call-takers, he said, are not sufficiently trained to make those decisions. “You have to study for six years to become a doctor, and six years more to become an emergency doctor. I want to know, how can these operators ever be sufficiently trained?”
The National Health Service in the UK operates a similar system called NHS 111 for non-urgent medical help. According to Stroobants, a study carried out this year in England, where the system is separate from those in Wales and Scotland, showed that faults in the system led to an estimated 20 fatalities in a year, five of them children.
“That’s exactly why we will not have it said that the 1733 number is being introduced with our approval. Because that is not the case.”
Federal health minister Maggie De Block, who is also a general practitioner by training, remains a supporter of the 1733 system. “I’m happy to discuss with the emergency doctors, but I find it a little strange that if someone calls 112 for a heart attack or a stroke they’re put through to an operator, but for a runny nose or a splinter that’s not acceptable. We have been testing for a long time, and its all been well worked out. Give it a chance, please, before rushing to judgement.”
And she cited a test project in the area of Tienen-Leuven, which showed that only 0.8% of callers were misdirected. “But is that case is a heart attack, then even that is pretty serious,” Stroobants replied.
The emergency numbers in Belgium are:
100 – for emergency assistance from ambulance or fire brigade101 – for emergency assistance from police112 – the emergency number for all three services throughout Europe1722 – for assistance in non-life-threatening situations during storms or flooding1733 – the planned new number for non-emergencies