GPs raise alarm over new 111 NHS helpline

Patients seeking NHS care in parts of Yorkshire are facing delays getting help from a new helpline, doctors have warned.

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The full NHS 111 service has been launched in West Yorkshire and will be available across the region next month.

But GPs say feedback from doctors in West Yorkshire working on overnight and weekend out-of-hours care has revealed concerns over lack of staffing, non-clinicians assessing calls, inappropriate prioritisation of non-emergencies and delays on home visits.

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The problems mirror difficulties across the country following the introduction of the service which is seen by Ministers as a key part of transforming access to healthcare including reducing pressure on A&E and 999 services.

NHS 111 in Yorkshire, run by the region’s ambulance service, has already been delayed from its original “soft launch” on March 5.

It is now running at half its expected capacity as it deals with all calls from the region which would formerly have gone to NHS Direct, as well as out-of-hours urgent calls in West Yorkshire. It will take over calls for all non-urgent NHS help across the region on April 9.

Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust said the 111 service is fully live in West Yorkshire and Bassetlaw and has taken on NHS Direct (0845 46 47) calls for the rest of Yorkshire and the Humber.

A spokeswoman added: “Staffing for the NHS 111 service is in line with the service implementation plan. With regard to prioritisation of home visits, the GP out-of-hours’ services continue to manage the home visits made by GPs.”

Yesterday the British Medical Association (BMA) wrote to NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson highlighting national concerns, and calling for a delay until it was “fully safe for the public”.

Leeds GP Richard Vautrey, vice chairman of the BMA’s GP committee, said doctors in West Yorkshire had raised concerns over a shortage of capacity to deal with calls, as well as call-handlers lacking expertise compared to a clinician. Computer systems did not work effectively leading to delays in passing on information.

“What is happening is that patients are in some cases being advised inappropriately and being told to call an ambulance, or they need a home visit, or need to see a GP, and often when they’re seen that’s not been the case,” he said.

“Doctors working in out-of-hours services are under significant pressure already and this is adding further to their problems.”

He said the BMA had told the Government two years ago the timescale for the service was too tight and had warned over the launch of the service around the Easter holidays and at the same time as the biggest ever revamp of the NHS.

“We want the system to work, because there is the germ of a good idea there, but it needs time, resources and the right infrastructure,” he added.

Labour spokesman Lord Hunt warned of reports “up and down the country” of staff shortages and long waits to get through to the service which was putting pressure on hospitals.

Health Minister Lord Howe said he was aware of problems in two areas, but said pilots showed a high rate of patient satisfaction.

The NHS Commissioning Board said it was “confident that measures now in place will ensure resolution of these early problems”.