AMBULANCE chiefs have been offering crew members the chance to win store vouchers – depending on how they decided patients should be treated.

South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) introduced the prize draw – which offered £200 in store vouchers as a prize for four members of staff each week – as part of a “GP Triage Reward Scheme”.

The triaging scheme is a process of deciding how and where patients should be treated.

Entry into the £800 weekly prize draw – which would have meant more than £40,000 of store vouchers would have been handed out in a year if the scheme had lasted that long – was dependent on whether crew members tried to refer patients to GPs or out-of-hours doctors.

The criteria for entry into the scheme was outlined in a newsletter to staff from SCAS divisional director Phil Pimlott on March 1, which was headlined “Hot News”.

But last week, a crew member contacted The Gazette with ethical concerns about the scheme – and the day after we raised those concerns with SCAS bosses, a U-turn was announced and ambulance bosses said they were scrapping the prize draw.

The concerned emergency care assistant, who did not want to be named, said: “It is unbelievable that part of what is a crucial decision-making process could be clouded by the incentive of entering a lottery for personal financial gain.

“This scheme only serves to undermine the special relationship between ambulance crews and the patient. This information should be in the public domain.”

The ambulance service is currently under pressure to improve its performance. In its latest report, health watchdog Care Quality Commission branded the SCAS trust as “weak”.

Hampshire County Council’s health and overview scrutiny committee has also published a report that concluded emergency response times in rural areas were too slow.

Dr Nigel Watson, chief executive of Wessex Local Medical Committee, which represents local GPs in The Gazette area, said the committee had not been told about the prize draw scheme and would be “discussing” it with the ambulance trust.

He added: “The LMC would not support direct payment or financial rewards via a draw as a way of rewarding a change in clinical behaviour.”

But on Friday, less than 24 hours after The Gazette had passed on the crew member’s concerns and asked for a response to these, SCAS announced the U-turn – and Mr Pimlott admitted that bosses had received other concerns.

In a statement, Mr Pimlott said: “Following its launch, the trust received a number of concerns about the scheme, and as a result, a review of the scheme had started, and it has since been withdrawn.

“We have found that it has increased awareness of referral routes. However, there have been no inappropriate referrals or payments made to staff.”

Martin Cox, a member of the Hampshire Link patient forum, is pleased the prize draw scheme has been dropped.

He said: “The scheme does not enhance the professional reputation of the ambulance service.”

See Monday’s Gazette for full details of the controversial prize draw newsletter.