New number ‘could risk lives’

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DOCTORS say that problems with a new phone line piloted in Wigan last week “could risk lives” - senior medics are questioning the safety of the new non-emergency NHS telephone advice line - the 111 service.

Senior medics are questioning the safety of the new non-emergency NHS telephone advice line - the 111 service.

Replacing NHS Direct, 111 was put into service in Wigan last Thursday, but proved problematic, with some callers left on hold for hours.

The British Medical Association (BMA) which represents British doctors, has written to NHS bosses to call for a delay in the launch of the 111 service.

They say they are concerned that many of the places, including Wigan, that are already offering the new service or that are due to launch soon are ill-prepared, putting patients’ lives in danger.

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 Wigan and across 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 call outs and casualty visits as callers have resorted to other measures to get seen by a healthcare professional.

Dr Laurence Buckman, the British Medical Association’s GP committee chair, says wider roll-out should be stalled.

He said the “chaotic mess” of 111 was placing strain on over-stretched parts of the NHS, such as the ambulance service, and potentially jeopardising patients.

He said: “The BMA is seriously concerned that these failures are not only having impact on other 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 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.”

However, NHS chiefs say the problems are not as bad as reported and that as a precaution, the NHS Direct number has been temporarily reinstated.

A spokesman for the NHS in Greater Manchester said: “The NHS 111 service for the North West was ‘soft launched’ on Thursday March 21. There are some issues that need to resolved with the NHS 111 out of hours call handling, which are being addressed.

“As an interim measure arrangements are now in place so that call handling will return to existing out-of-hours call handling providers where possible; where this is not possible additional capacity is being provided by the North West Ambulance Service. NHS 111 will provide an out-of-hours service for a small number of areas that are unable to switch their old service back on.

“Commissioners are in the process of exploring the specific issues and engaging with the NHS 111 provider to gain assurances that they are able to fix the problems encountered. It is not yet clear exactly how long it will take to fully resolve these issues.

“Ensuring that an effective service is provided for local people out-of-hours is crucial. The situation is being constantly monitored to ensure that there is capacity to respond to all calls as quickly as possible. We will not reintroduce NHS 111 into the areas where out-of-hours providers are taking back their calls until the issues have been resolved.”

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 April 1 2013 deadline for regions struggling to set up the new service.

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.