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New NHS 111 helpline sends emergency services into chaos

  • NHS

As some of you might know, a new 111 helpline number was introduced roughly a month ago aiming at easing the pressure on the traditional 999 number with a new out-of-hours service that provides medical advice. Replacing the current NHS Direct number, the new 111 service has been tested in some areas for the past few weeks, but unfortunately so far the results have been quite catastrophic, to the degree that an inquiry has been launched to establish the scale of the damage.

Instead of helping those with less critical emergencies to assess their condition without resorting to a visit at the local hospital, 111 operators have been clogging up even more the strained A&E departments by sending there people that clearly didn't need that degree of care. Not only there have been reports of ambulances being called out in Sussex for cases involving an ingrown toenail and a cat with diarrhoea, but it has also emerged that in Wiltshire, 111 staff offered to send an ambulance to deliver painkillers to a patient suffering from toothache.

At the same time, real emergencies have been overlooked due to the increasing volume of patients showing up at the hospitals after being wrongly referred there by 111 operators. The ambulance service's abuse has also caused major problems with reports of staff being too busy chasing up minor cases to attend real emergencies. In Yorkshire for instance an elderly woman is now fighting for her life in intensive care after waiting 14 hours for an ambulance.

In addition, 111 operators' skills and competence have been questioned following some quite disturbing episodes, such as the case of a Dorset kid who had to be rushed to hospital - with what has been subsequently diagnosed as a life-threatening acute appendicitis - after 111 staff failed to return the parents' calls.

Dr Laurence Buckman, BMA’s GP committee's chairman, has criticised the new service, pointing out that it has been rushed and not properly tested: “The evidence that is emerging is extremely worrying, and it is also depressingly inevitable. We warned the Government repeatedly not to keep pushing ahead with the rollout of this service until we could be sure it was safe. Our fear was that patients would be harmed and now they are being harmed.”

The new 111 service has been now temporarily suspended in some parts of the country.

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