The NHS 111 helpline may not be “safe and effective” for diagnosing illness in young children, the country’s most senior paediatrician has warned.
Professor Neena Modi said there was a question mark over whether 111 call handlers - who are not medically trained - should be carrying out assessments and deplored the decline of GP out-of-hours services, which she said was a “great loss” to the country.
Prof Modi, who is president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said 111 had been brought in at huge cost without any proper evaluation of whether it was a safe service. And she criticised the process of assessing children over the phone as well as the fact that some doctors do not have access to notes detailing a child’s medical history.
When short cuts are made “things go wrong”, she added.
Last month, a report into the death of 12-month-old William Mead criticised GPs, out-of-hours services and a 111 call handler who failed to spot he had sepsis caused by an underlying chest infection and pneumonia.
The report said William may have lived if the NHS 111 call hander had realised the seriousness of his condition or if a medic had taken the call.
Prof Modi said it was currently uncertain whether 111 was appropriate for children, adding that recognising serious illness “gets more and more difficult the younger the child”.
She said: “It is uncertain - because studies have not been adequately conducted - whether or not the telephone triage service such as NHS 111 is really going to be safe and effective for very small children.
“Even a clinician trying to make an assessment over the telephone would find it much more difficult in a smaller child than in an older child.
“Then when you add in the lack of clinical expertise, it’s going to be even more difficult. I feel really sorry for the call handlers because they are being placed in a position that really it’s questionable that they should be placed in.”
Prof Modi said she was not alone in being saddened at the loss of out-of-hours services run by GP practices.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, last month apologised to William’s parents saying they were let down in the “worst possible way.”
In a statement to MPs, Mr Hunt said: “Whilst any health system will inevitably suffer some tragedies, the issues in this case have significant implications for the rest of the NHS that I’m determined we should learn from.”