THE comment that Ireland has the "best ambulance service in the world" at the end of a television documentary featuring grieving relatives and a struggling service was not just a case of unfortunate timing.
Although Martin Dunne, the HSE's head of the ambulance service, attempted to clarify his remark yesterday, saying he was talking about the quality of staff, training and vehicles, the tone of this declaration is disquieting at a stage when, by way of reassurance, we are also being told it is being radically reformed.
If we look at the target times alone, which are set by the HSE to have an ambulance at the scene of a life-threatening emergency, it is clear that it is lagging behind many other countries.
The target here is 18 minutes and 59 seconds, while it is as low as eight minutes in Scotland, which has much the same terrain as our own and large tracts of rural areas. And in Canada's British Columbia, health authorities have set a time limit of nine minutes to reach the stricken patient.
The HSE-run service is not just falling short in meeting response times but is guilty of poor performance, which is putting lives at risk.
This is particularly felt in rural areas and counties in the west and south-east. Mayo GP Dr Jerry Cowley was particularly poignant when he spoke of tending to a dying patient in a country road with no sign of an ambulance on the horizon.
The overhaul of the ambulance service has been long overdue. The service has been beset by accusations of high rates of absenteeism and massive overtime bills. The HSE says there is still a problem with absenteeism, although it is tackling the overtime issue.
It is time to start following other countries in measuring outcomes – how many people survived or suffered serious disability after being treated by paramedics or failing to make it to hospital on time.