One in eight calls to the NHS’s new non emergency health direct phone number are going unanswered, amid reports people are having to wait over half an hour. Ministers want 111 to be the only number people need to call in England, “if you urgently need medical help or advice but it’s not a life threatening situation”.
But a pilot in four areas – Luton, County Durham and Darlington, Lincolnshire, and Nottingham – is highlighting worrying problems.
Official statistics show that in September, 12 per cent of calls went unanswered.
Across the four areas there were 33,707 calls to the service.
The Department of Health expects 12 million calls a year to the free 111 number in England, based on scaling up that figure.
Writing on the NHS’s own web page about the 111 number, one caller expressed frustration at being unable to get through despite waiting 35 minutes.
“All I wanted was a bit of advice. I now need to go to work and have had no help from anyone,” the caller wrote. “I had the sense to take pain killers myself, hope this new service gets better.”
A month ago Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, announced that 111 would be rolled out nationwide by April 2013, abolishing the concept of “out-of-hours” care. It is also meant to encompass NHS Direct.
The Department of Health claimed the September statistics showed an “encouraging picture”.
A spokesman said: “Lessons learned from the pilots will ensure that when the service is rolled out nationally it will provide people with a first class service.”
He added: “We know that unanswered calls are usually callers who get through to the NHS 111 message and hang up. This could be because they wanted to speak to their GP practice, but it was still in the ‘out of hours’ period and they were therefore transferred to NHS 111.
“This figure does not mean patients are receiving a poor service.”
A spokesman for NHS Direct echoed this, saying the vast majority of the 12 per cent of unanswered calls were of people who chose to hang up, after learning they were being put through to the 111 service when they wanted to speak directly to their GP.