Objectives To understand the reasons behind, and experience of, seeking and receiving emergency ambulance treatment for a ‘primary care sensitive’ condition.
Design A comprehensive, qualitative systematic review. Medline, Embase, PsychInfo, Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health, Health Management Information Systems, Healthcare Management Information Consortium, OpenSigle, EThOS and Digital Archive of Research Theses databases were systematically searched for studies exploring patient, carer or healthcare professional interactions with ambulance services for ‘primary care sensitive’ problems. Studies using wholly qualitative approaches or mixed-methods studies with substantial use of qualitative techniques in both the methods and analysis sections were included. An analytical thematic synthesis was undertaken, using a line-by-line qualitative coding method and a hierarchical inductive approach.
Results Of 1458 initial results, 33 studies met the first level (relevance) inclusion criteria, and six studies met the second level (methodology and quality) criteria. The analysis suggests that patients define situations worthy of ‘emergency’ ambulance use according to complex socioemotional factors, as well as experienced physical symptoms. There can be a mismatch between how patients and professionals define ‘emergency’ situations. Deciding to call an ambulance is a process shaped by practical considerations and a strong emotional component, which can be influenced by the views of caregivers. Sometimes the value of a contact with the ambulance service is principally in managing this emotional component. Patients often wish to hand over responsibility for decisions when experiencing a perceived emergency. Feeling empowered to take control of a situation is a highly valued aspect of ambulance care.
Conclusions When responding to a request for ‘emergency’ help for a low-acuity condition, urgent-care services need to be sensitive to how the patient's emotional and practical perception of the situation may have shaped their decision-making and the influence that carers may have had on the process. There may be novel ways to deliver some of the valued aspects of urgent care, more geared to the resource-limited environment.