INEM has opened an inquiry into the delay in assisting the elderly woman who later died in hospital over the weekend, stressing that the service "continues to register a very accentuated increase in activity"...

Portugal’s pre-hospital ‘emergency response’ in crisis

INEM needs another 500 ‘paramedics’ as ‘horror stories’ come thick and fast

Last weekend saw media outrage over the case of an elderly retired teacher left collapsed in a Lisbon street waiting for medical assistance for over an hour – but it was only one of many incidents now coming to the fore showing how dire the situation can be when people in desperate need call for an ambulance in Portugal.

As it was, the elderly woman died later in hospital.

Today tabloid Correio da Manhã recalls other ‘tragedies’ in which people call for emergency assistance, and are left waiting to the point that any help arriving is far too late.

Perhaps the worst case this year happened in January, when a Portalegre couple was left hanging for seven hours for help with their baby, who died before paramedics arrived.

The same month also saw José Pedro Gomes, aged 60, die in the Algarve, after waiting more than two hours for an ambulance to take him from Vila Real de Santo António to Faro hospital.

On Saturday, CM carried another horror story, showing how INEM operators actually wasted precious moments of an emergency call arguing with distraught family members (a mother and son), to the point the 41-year-old victim died. That incident has seen the Central Administrative Tribunal of the South award the bereaved family €140,000 by way of compensation – but it has taken 13 years of legal toings and froings to get this result.

Meantime, says CM, the reality is that INEM needs 1,400 paramedics and has only 900.

Rui Lazaro, president of the syndicate of pre-hospital emergency technicians has been explaining to the paper that vacancies are always advertised by rarely find takers.

“It is not a very attractive career”, he said. “The salary is low – close to the national minimum wage. The last campaign opened offered 125 jobs, with a base salary of €750 with a supplement of €187”.

A previous employment drive sought to take on 178 paramedics, but only succeeded in attracting 54, he added.

Referring to the weekend’s sadness of the retired teacher, aged 83, left lying in the gutter in Campolide for almost an hour and a half, Rui Lazaro said: “We don’t have the personnel. Ambulances are shut down every day throughout the country. The other problem is that INEM also transports ‘non-urgent patients’ – and then, when ambulances are needed for urgent cases they simply aren’t available”.

Contributing to these woes is an increase in the number of calls received by the country’s CODU centres for emergency patient response. 

In July, daily calls averaged 4,538 – “the highest number ever”, says CM. 

Indeed, since January, the daily average every month has been above 4,000 calls. On May 27, for example, there was a record 5,218 calls for emergency assistance.

This sudden spike in demand has seen the European Society for Medical Assistance announce that it will be calling for the creation of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Portugal’s integrated medical emergency system, while ANTEM (the country’s national association of paramedics) has created an email address for people left waiting to report their delays in the hope this will force INEM management to improve the situation.