AMBULANCES are reaching patients faster in the Lothians – despite receiving a growing number of call outs.
On average, patients needing to go to accident and emergency over the last 12 months were picked up in 8.3 minutes.
The response time is a shade above the eight-minute target the Scottish Ambulance Service will be expected to hit in three-quarters of cases by next March.
However, it has already cut half a minute off the previous year's figure, despite receiving almost 4000 more calls.
Ambulance call outs have rocketed in recent years – emergency calls rose by six per cent in 2005/06 and by four per cent in 2006/07 to 88,300.
Some paramedics put the increase down to people being unable to get a doctor out of hours and resolving to go to accident and emergency instead.
It remains to be seen whether the new contract, signed last month and which should see GPs make themselves available at evenings and weekends, will result in numbers going down.
John Morton, Scottish Ambulance Service spokesman, revealed it is looking into why demand continues to rise.
"There are a whole range of things that can affect ambulance demand," he said. "We are analysing our demand.
"We seem to get an average rise of about four per cent a year, so the latest increase is normal. Our target is to get to three-quarters of all life-threatening calls within eight minutes by March 31, 2009.
"We are certainly heading in the right direction, which demonstrates the commitment of our staff to what is a very difficult and challenging job."
One reason for the high level of demand is the soaring number of patients being treated at the ERI.
Already Scotland's busiest A&E department – about 50 per cent more so than its nearest rival – it was seeing 8500 patients a month by the end of last year, a nine per cent increase on 2005.
NHS Lothian believes it has become a victim of its own success, with 98 per cent of A&E patients seen within four hours – comfortably hitting the Scottish Government's target.
The Scotland Patients Association also believes that deteriorating health and greater willingness to call for an ambulance have contributed to the rise.
Dr Jean Turner, chief of the Scotland Patient Association, said: "It is good to see these response times coming down. The ambulance service gets through a tremendous amount of work and I think it will be very difficult for it to meet these targets.
"People are living longer and have more complex needs. Demand is also going up because of education – people know when to phone an ambulance."