The new NHS health direct non-emergency advice line had a “very disappointing start” and is still not operating properly in several parts of the country Ministers have admitted.Health officials have launched an investigation into the advice line after a number of potentially serious incidents, including three deaths, have been linked to the service.
Patients have complained about calls going unanswered and poor advice being given, with frivolous calls being passed on to ambulance services, while serious concerns did not receive a prompt response.
Speaking at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence annual conference in Birmingham, Lord Howe, a Health Minister admitted that in some parts of the country, the service “fell down”.
He said concerns remained about the way the 111 line is operating in the south west and south east coast.
“We are worried about services in the south west and the south east coast but the rest of the country – we have got 90 per cent of the country covered by 111 – is experiencing a good, if not excellent, service all the time. So we need to get this in proportion.
“We are not happy with those two particular areas and NHS England are gripping it. We have been very candid about where NHS 111 fell down, we did not want to duck that.”
The extent of the telephone line’s teething problems were laid bare yesterday when official figures revealed a stark rise in abandoned calls.
The number of people who hung up after waiting for more than 30 seconds increased from 6,976 in February to 29,100 in March, according to NHS England figures.
And the average call length also increased from 14.19 minutes in February to almost 18 minutes in March.
Although the total number of calls also increased by 140,000 during the same period as the 111 pilot scheme was adopted more widely, the proportion of abandoned calls increased from 3.2 per cent to 8.1 per cent, the figures show.
Last week, leading doctors warned that the “problematic” roll-out of NHS 111 has left patients not knowing where to turn to for help as posted in the Health Direct blog NHS 111- warnings over seriously flawed health cover.
The Royal College of General Practitioners said patients have “lost confidence” in the new number before it is even fully up and running across England.
The service was supposed to be rolled out on April 1, but officials were forced to relax the deadline after it emerged that many of the advice lines – which are run by 44 individual local bodies across the country – were not ready to “go live”.
And, more than a month on, seven of the regional bodies are still not even ready to start giving advice to patients in their areas.