ONE third of Australians would not call an ambulance if they believed someone had suffered a stroke.
This surprising fact was revealed in a study by Edith Cowan University leading to a warning by researchers that a lack of public understanding about when to call an ambulance is putting a strain on paramedic services and potentially risking lives.
The study asked 544 Australians whether they thought it was appropriate to call an ambulance in 17 hypothetical scenarios.
Alarmingly just six per cent of people recognised that an ambulance should be called for someone showing the symptoms of meningitis, which include fever, severe headache and a stiff neck.
Lead researcher Brennen Mills from ECU's School of Medical and Health Sciences said meningitis was a potentially fatal condition that warranted calling an ambulance.
"While just six per cent of people said they would call an ambulance for a suspected meningitis case, 50 per cent of people did recognise that it was serious but opted to transport the patient to hospital themselves." he said.
Just 63 per cent of people recognised that an ambulance should be called for someone displaying symptoms of a stroke.
Dr Mills said that even a short delay in getting a suspected stroke victim to hospital could result in brain damage.
"In these circumstances, as symptoms such as facial drooping, slurred speech and swallowing problems manifest, it's vital to call an ambulance," he said.
However, at the other end of the spectrum one in five people surveyed said a woman going into labour warranted calling an ambulance, despite experts advising an emergency response was usually not needed.
Dr Mills said that in 2009 Ambulance Victoria, one of Australia's busiest services, documented 630 transportations of women in the early stages of labour.
"This provides some real-world evidence that ambulance services are being used for uncomplicated early labour where it is not warranted," he said.
Masters student Michella Hill, who contributed to the research, said that it was also concerning that so many people said they would opt to transport people to hospital in their own car in the event of an emergency.
"Paramedics do a lot more than just transport patients to hospital," she said. "They can provide initial medical care during the transport and also know which hospital will be best suited for the patient. They are also trained to drive in challenging and stressful conditions."
Dr Mills said there was a delicate balance around when to call ambulances.
"We know that demand for ambulance services is far outstripping population growth, so we need to ensure that we are using the service only when appropriate.
"Every ambulance that is responding to a non life-threatening situation is one ambulance that is not available for real emergencies" he said. "At the same time, in emergency situations even a delay of just minutes can be the difference between life and death, so we don't want to discourage people from calling an ambulance in those situations.
"Ultimately what we need to do is to better educate the public about what medical circumstances truly classify as a medical emergency and warrant calling an ambulance."
Dr Mills said that if in doubt, the Healthdirect Nursing Call Centre could provide 24/7 over-the-phone advice. Call 1800-022-222.
What constitutes an emergency ambulance call? was published in the Australian Journal of Paramedicine.