When should you call an ambulance?

HEART ATTACK?: If chest pain is severe, heavy, crushing, worsening or lasts longer than 10 minutes, call triple-0.
HEART ATTACK?: If chest pain is severe, heavy, crushing, worsening or lasts longer than 10 minutes, call triple-0.

When it comes to your family's health, it is better to plan for the worst and have nothing go wrong, than to have no plan when an emergency strikes.

Preparing a health plan for the upcoming holiday period can offer peace of mind. This includes knowing when you may have a medical emergency on your hands, and when to call triple-0 immediately.

Indeed, research from Perth's Edith Cowan University (ECU) suggests a lack of public understanding about when to call an ambulance is putting a strain on paramedic services and potentially risking lives.

Researchers asked 544 Australians if they thought it was appropriate to call an ambulance in 17 hypothetical scenarios.

Alarmingly, just 6 per cent recognised an ambulance should be called for someone showing meningitis symptoms, which include fever, severe headache and a stiff neck.

Lead researcher Dr 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 6 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.

Additionally, just 63 per cent of people recognised an ambulance should be called for someone with stroke symptoms.

Dr Mills said 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.

On the other end of the spectrum, a fifth of survey respondents said a woman going into labour warranted calling an ambulance, despite experts advising an emergency response was usually not needed.

Masters student Michella Hill, who contributed to the research, said it was concerning 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. 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."

"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.

"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.

If in doubt, he said, the Healthdirect Nursing Call Centre could provide over-the-phone advice.

Healthdirect is available 24/7 by calling 1800 022 222.

After hours or over Christmas, your regular GP may not be available, so plan what you will do in the event you would need to visit your family doctor, including locating an after-hours clinic.

If travelling in Australia or overseas, check the rules about carrying medications and prescriptions beforehand, and do not forget to obtain and pack them, along with a copy of any complicated medical history that might be helpful when seeing a medical professional who is not your regular doctor.

Research the area you're visiting so you know where the nearest medical help is.

A pharmacist may provide advice and treatment for minor injuries and ailments, and help with healthcare issues like headaches, coughs or colds, recommending and providing over-the-counter medication, such as pain relief.

Help with minor injuries and ailments, medical supplies, such as bandages and dressings, is also available.

Holidays can be joyous occasions but they may also take their toll on your mental health.

Financial hardship, loneliness and family conflict can increase stress for those with anxiety and depression.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the Beyond Blue Support Service - 1300 22 4636 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am ADST).