After months of debate and delays, the NHS is finally set to nationally launch its new 111 non-emergency telephone advice line on April 1st (next Monday). The new service replaces NHS Direct, the 24/7 helpline that was reachable across England through the national non-geographic 0845 46 47 number since 1998.
Plans for the replacement 111 service were “leaked” in August 2010 as part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to make cuts within the health service. Currently NHS Direct is believed to cost the NHS around £25 to answer each call, which is roughly the same amount it costs for a patient to visit their GP, according to the British Medical Association (BMA).
Whilst the number 111 will clearly be far easier to remember and dial for the patient, and supposedly cheaper for the NHS to handle each call, the new service has faced a storm of criticism ever since the plans were drawn up and pilot schemes tested.
It has been claimed that some of the advisers received just 6 weeks training, lines were overstretched with up to 2 hours waiting time, patients received wrong advice and simply called 999 instead afterwards, whilst advisers will no longer be purely nurses or doctors as the NHS Direct service used to offer.
NHS 111 already operates in 10 test areas around England and recently recorded it’s 1 millionth caller. Despite receiving nearly 3 years of testing, experts are calling for further delays due to the problems encountered with the service so far. Doctors have warned that the nationwide rollout planned for Monday will be “dangerous”, and have called for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to allow time for further testing.
The BMA wrote to NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson, highlighting the current problems the service is facing. Dr Laurence Buckman, Chairman of the BMA GP Committee, commented that – “There have been widespread reports of patients being unable to get through to an operator or waiting hours before getting a call back with the health information they have requested”.
In some of the current test areas such as Manchester, the service has completely crashed at times, with the sheer volume of calls. Strain was being placed on the ambulance service – something 111 was set up to actually reduce.
Dr Buckman continued “we cannot sacrifice patient safety in order to meet a political deadline for the launch of a service that doesn’t work properly”.
The Department of Health has so far only allowed a 6-month extended period for testing in areas that are currently experiencing problems. The current NHS Direct 0845 46 47 service will continue to operate in areas where NHS 111 is not yet operational.