Doctors: Halt NHS headline now… three days before launch of new phone service, BMA makes last-minute plea to prevent 'chaos' costing patients' lives
BMA wrote to NHS head after urging him to delay full roll-out of 111 serviceDoctor said patient safety cannot be 'sacrificed' to meet 'political deadline'
Patients using pilot schemes have already waited hours for urgent advice
Those who are not ill enough for ambulance will be told to ring serviceDue to be used nationwide from Monday despite serious errors during trialsBMA said system 'run on the cheap' with untrained staff rather than nurse
Sophie Borland and Neil Sears
16:49 GMT, 28 March 2013
23:53 GMT, 28 March 2013
Doctors demanded last night that a new health helpline due to be introduced across most of England within days should be suspended, warning that lives could be at risk.
The British Medical Association wrote to the head of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, urging him to delay Monday’s full national roll-out of the 111 service.
Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA’s GP Committee, said: ‘We cannot sacrifice patient safety to meet a political deadline.’
Earlier this week the Mail reported fears about the state of the service, but by last night doctors and health unions were convinced it would be a ‘chaotic mess’.
Some patients using limited 111 pilot schemes are already waiting several hours for urgent medical advice, while others have been told to phone back the following day because there is no one available to talk to them.
A parent of a sick baby was told by a 111 worker: ‘I don’t know what to do.’
From Monday, the 111 line will replace NHS Direct and GP out-of-hours numbers across most of England.
Patients who are not ill enough to need an ambulance will be told to ring the free number for medical advice round the clock.
But pilot schemes have thrown up a string of problems ranging from computer crashes to ambulances being sent out needlessly.
Dr Buckman said: ‘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 areas, such as Greater Manchester, NHS 111 effectively crashed because it was unable to cope with the number of calls it was receiving.
‘The chaotic mess now afflicting NHS 111 is not only placing strain on other already overstretched parts of the NHS, such as the ambulance service, but is potentially placing patients at risk.
‘If someone calls NHS 111 they need immediate, sound advice and not be faced with any form of delay.
When patients rang the number in Greater Manchester this week they were played an automated message which told them to ring back the following day ‘‘when lines are less busy’’.’
In Wiltshire, where the line was introduced earlier this month, call handlers have been sending ambulances to people with hiccups, sore throats and earache.
There are concerns that calls are being handled by staff with just ten days training who read out a series of set questions from their computer.
Dr John Hughes, a GP in Crumpsall, near Manchester, said: ‘I am extremely worried. Within less than 11 hours the service was in meltdown. Calls weren’t being answered for hours, patients were having to ring up 999 ambulances.
‘These are non-clinically trained people. They work their way through a computer system which directs them to the next question to ask.
‘This is an extremely slow system and in some areas the computers weren’t even working and they had to do it on paper.
‘It really can’t go live on Monday because patients’ lives will be at risk. I have had reports of a 90-year-old lady having to wait more than an hour and a half for an urgent call.’
NHS Direct was launched in 1998 to provide medical advice round the clock in an attempt to reduce the number of patients needlessly turning up in A&E.
On the whole it is deemed to have been a success although it has occasionally been overstretched during flu and norovirus outbreaks.
Now NHS bosses believe that dismantling it and merging it with out-of-hours telephone services for GP surgeries will make it easier for patients to get medical help particularly at evenings and weekends.
They will be put through to a call centre worker who will decide if they need to go to A&E, a GP clinic, a chemist or can get by with over-the-phone advice.
The operator can potentially send out an ambulance, put someone straight through to a nurse, book an out-of-hours GP appointment, or direct the caller to a pharmacist or dentist.
In some areas of the country the new service will be run by private firms while in others it will be overseen by NHS ambulance services.
But the BMA has also warned that the service is being ‘run on the cheap’ with far higher proportions of untrained workers than nurses.
While nurses represented around 36 per cent of staff at NHS Direct, they only comprise around 17 per cent of the NHS 111 workforce.
The union Unison claims that 400 nurses who worked for NHS Direct have been made redundant as there were not enough 111 jobs available.
Some regions are struggling to set up the new service and the NHS Direct 0845 4647 service will continue to be available to callers in these areas.
A spokesman for NHS England, the new body in charge of the health service, said: ‘The service has great potential to be a fast, efficient, all-round service that ensures patients get the right care for their needs.
‘This is a very important service for the public and we will make sure everything is in place to make a safe, high quality service that patients and the public can trust.’