A county health boss says the new 111 helpline for medical non-emergencies will help improve services for patients.
Dr Kamal Sood says the facility, which has taken over from the previous NHS Direct service – which now asks users to hang up and call 111 instead – will also allow more efficient treatment for patients with life-threatening emergencies.
The 111 number is primarily intended to be an out-of-hours service, or for patients who do not have a GP to call.
If call handlers think the situation is more serious, they will arrange for an ambulance to visit immediately.
Calls from Northamptonshire patients are currently answered by operators based in Derbyshire.
“It’s about your need for emergency healthcare below the need to dial for an ambulance because you are dying,” explained Dr Sood, an elected GP chairman on the Nene Clinical Commissioning Group.
“It still has to be used responsibly and sensibly, otherwise you block up the system.
“If you have a pharmaceutical query you are better off calling a pharmacist, not ringing 111.”
Dr Sood said people should try to assess whether to call for help by questioning whether they were able to look after themselves, or with the help of friends and family, before they dialled.
He said: “If it’s more urgent than that, please dial 111, especially if the alternative is to go to accident and emergency or dial 999.
“The important thing to realise at the moment is it’s not envisaged as a service during the daytime.
“This is a response to the realisation that as a patient it’s difficult to know how negotiate the minefield of services available to get what you need.
“You did the easiest thing you could – you dialled 999 inappropriately or you turned up at accident and emergency, both of which are an expensive way of offering the care patients need.”
Instead, Dr Sood said, patients should have the 111 number as ingrained in their thinking as 999 is.
He said: “When you dial 111 the person who answers has an algorithm to work through to get you the best sort of service you need.
“If you have a cut, you don’t necessarily need to see an out-of-hours doctor – a nurse could do that.
“It’s trying to make sure we fine-tune what we give according to what people need.
“The aim is to have a very responsive service. You will confidently expect to receive a response within 60 seconds.
If you need to speak to a nurse, they will ring you back within 10 minutes.”
But Dr Sood admitted it would take time before the service was operating completely smoothly.
He said: “We will have hiccups, but we will get there. Your experience of using it at the moment won’t be as positive as we would like, but we will get there.”
Dr Sood’s comments come after NHS chiefs defended the service following criticism from the British Medical Association – which represents doctors – last month.
BMA chairman Dr Laurence Buckman said the system, designed to help those in need of assistance for non-life threatening conditions, potentially put patients at risk.
He added: “We cannot sacrifice patient safety in order to meet a political deadline for the launch of a service that doesn’t work properly.”
‘Use A&E correctly’
The NHS 111 service has been introduced to try to direct patients to the level of care they require.
It is hoped it will reduce the number of people needlessly dialling 999 or visiting accident and emergency departments, taking away resources from those suffering genuine emergencies.
Kettering General Hospital has recently struggled with the number of visitors to A&E, with the Telegraph revealing the department had among the slowest transit times in England at the start of 2013.
Hospital chief executive Lorene Read said demand on service there had more than doubled over the past 20 years, partly due to inappropriate visits from patients.
She said: “This is a long-term trend in the county which is probably partly due to a rise in population, partly due a proportional rise in the number of older people with more complex medical needs, and probably also partly due to the success of A&E departments driving down waiting times and – wrongly – becoming the default option for some people when seeking medical care.
“We would continue to urge people to use health services in the county appropriately and to follow the ‘get the right treatment’ messages around using alternative resources like urgent care centres, out-of-hours GP services, GP surgeries and pharmacists instead of going to A&E.”
Mixed views on 111
There has been a mixed reaction to the new service on the Telegraph’s Facebook page.
Tinamarie Jones said NHS 111, which she has used for her daughter, was much better than NHS Direct.
She added: “I thought they were quick and it’s a better number to remember.”
Cathy Carson agreed, saying: “It’s easier to remember than other numbers.”
But experiences have not all been positive, with Yvonne Wills saying: “I rang it on Good Friday and after 20mins of ringing (twice) I gave up and rang NHS Direct.
“I then went to casualty at KGH who were fantastic, saw us within 20 minutes.”
Sue Poxon revealed she had been frustrated when trying to phone on behalf of a relative.
“Apparently 111 can’t be used unless you are actually the patient, or standing next to them,” she said. “We spent the weekend trying to get attention for an elderly relative, eventually had to drive 100 miles to get to them and then make the 111 call.
“The 111 staff on this call were very helpful and an ambulance was sent promptly – but a ridiculous situation.”
Dr Sood says 111 operators prefer to speak to the patient or someone nearby, so they can talk through the problems properly.