NHS 111 phone number sparks concern
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.
End Quote Dr Laurence Buckman BMA's GP committee
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”
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.
- 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."