111 phone line wait ‘could be fatal’

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AN NHS urgent care line, which was piloted in Wigan has been slammed after critical delays left patients helpless and in potentially life-threatening positions.

The NHS says it has experienced seven “serious” incidents in the first few weeks of its 111 urgent care helpline in England.

All the cases are being reviewed.

Other organisations are also running 111 lines for NHS England and have been warned they must deliver good care or face financial or contract penalties.

In March, NHS 111 was launched in Wigan but was withdrawn within days after a number of people were unable to get through and one elderly patient had to wait 90 minutes for a call back from NHS 111.

NHS 111 is a free number for patients with urgent, but not life-threatening symptoms, including those who need fast medical help but who are not a 999 emergency.

It is designed to replace the NHS Direct advice line and out-of-hours GP call centres, with a more practical service.

According to GPs’ magazine Pulse, there have been 22 incidents classed as serious across all providers of 111 lines.

NHS Direct, which previously ran the phone line for people needing urgent treatment at evenings and weekends, has confirmed that seven potentially serious incidents on the 111 helpline it runs are being investigated.

The incidents occurred between 18 March and 11 April – which included the period when the service was being trialled – it said.

During that time, it dealt with about 122,000 calls.

The organisation added it was “not unduly concerned” about the level of incidents.

A spokesman said: “We take the responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of our patients extremely seriously.

“When a concern is raised we listen to the call and undertake an incident review involving experienced clinical staff. This allows us to identify clear actions so that lessons can be learnt and acted on quickly and thoroughly.”

A GP who was working when the system crashed said the service was “totally inadequate”.

Dr Mary Gibbs said: “Patients’ health was put at risk.”

The British Medical Association has also repeatedly raised concerns about the 111 service being able to provide a safe and effective service.

Where problems are identified with NHS 111, NHS Direct will continue to operate.