NHS 111 phone number sparks concern

elderly man on the phone Some callers have been put on hold for hours

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Doctors are questioning the safety of a new non-emergency NHS telephone advice line launching in England.

The 111 service, replacing NHS Direct, is being piloted in many regions but has proved problematic, with some callers left on hold for hours.

Dr Laurence Buckman, the British Medical Association's GP committee chair, says wider rollout should be stalled.

The Department of Health says it is giving some areas extra time.

It has already sanctioned an extension of up to six months of the original 1 April 2013 deadline for regions struggling to set up the new service.

Start Quote

The BMA is seriously concerned that these failures are not only having impact on other, already overstretched NHS services, but potentially putting patient safety at risk”

End Quote Dr Laurence Buckman BMA's GP committee

The NHS Direct 0845 4647 service will continue to be available to callers in areas where the NHS 111 service is not yet available, Health Minister Lord Howe insists.

These include: North of Tyne and Tees, North Essex, Bedfordshire and Luton, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Leicestershire and Rutland, Berkshire, Cornwall and Devon.

But the British Medical Association is concerned that many of the places that are already offering the new service or that are due to launch soon are ill-prepared, putting patients' lives at risk.

The BMA says it has been receiving widespread reports of NHS 111 failures

Some of the pilot regions have been unable to cope with call volumes or have suffered catastrophic IT failures.

In Greater Manchester the entire system crashed, meaning calls went unanswered.

One elderly patient had to wait 90 minutes for a call back from NHS 111.

Problems led to a surge in ambulance callouts and casualty visits as callers have resorted to other measures to get seen by a healthcare professional.

'Reconsider rollout'

Dr Buckman said: "The BMA is seriously concerned that these failures are not only having impact on other, already overstretched NHS services, but potentially putting patient safety at risk. Patients need to have their calls answered immediately and correctly and not be faced with any form of delay.

NHS 111

  • The free one-stop number is for patients with urgent, but not life-threatening symptoms
  • This includes people needing fast medical help, but who are not a 999 emergency
  • Trained advisers who answer the phones offer basic health advice and direct the caller to the most appropriate service for their needs - A&E or GP out-of-hours services, for example

"The Department of Health needs to reconsider immediately its launch of NHS 111 which clearly is not functioning properly. They must ensure that the system is safe for patients before it is rolled out any further."

Lord Howe said: "NHS 111 will help patients access the whole of the NHS through just one simple number.

"Over the coming months this new service will replace the existing NHS Direct telephone advice line. To ensure that patients get the best care and treatment, we are giving some areas more time to go live with NHS 111 while we carry out thorough testing to ensure that those services are reliable."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    Our son (11) had a high temperature last Saturday, we called 111 at 7.45 pm, and were told that a clinician would call back. After two and a half hours of waiting we called back ourselves, the nurse told us to give paracetamol and closed the call! After ringing back again, we finally got an appointment at midnight - he needed a 10 day course of antibiotics! Not much faith here I'm afraid...

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I called 111 about my 20 month old daughter. After asking about her symptoms the operator said "I don't know what to do" so I asked if she could be seen in the out of hours clinic at the hospital. Good job I did as she was admitted. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the service and is a big worry for how it will affect people who don't want to make a fuss and be pushy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    What a staggeringly idiotic waste of money this is when the NHS is in dire need of more hands on deck, not more phone numbers and more call centres to try and put people off seeking medical help when they think they might need it. Does the government think we are stupid and that no one would clock on to this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    What an odd situation, NHS Direct is going to be replaced by 111, but NHS Direct aren't simply rebranding to 111 oh no.

    The work to run 111 has gone out to tender and NHS Direct have won some, but not all, of that work.

    Sounds crazy doesn't it, when there is already a national number and team of people who answer such calls. It's all true though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Called 0845 4647 late last night (Sunday) hoping to locate an out of hours pharmacy.

    Went through automated Q&A to do with location only to get message that this service had closed and should call 111 instead. On calling 111 got automated message advising of extremely long wait times. Got info via web in the end but this contradicts Howe statement and does not augur well for the new service.


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