ITV News has uncovered claims that the NHS non-emergency 111 helpline - which was meant to help ease the burden on A&E departments in England - is instead pushing some "to breaking point".
Medical staff on the frontline claim there has been a big jump in the number of 999 callouts and a sharp rise in patients arriving in A&E departments - most of which are not urgent. They tell us this is because:
- Inexperienced 111 call centre staff are being too cautious and referring them to 999
- The computerised system of the list of questions callers are asked often leads to the conclusion of "call an ambulance"
- Callers often get tired of waiting for a call back from staff at the non-emergency helpline, or after a bad experience they end up taking themselves to A&E
ITV News Correspondent Rupert Evelyn reports;
NHS England says the service is working fine in most areas.
Prof Keith Willett, the National Director for Acute Episodes of Care for NHS England, told ITV News the 111 service is "designed to be cautious".
Prof Willett said it offers an opportunity for patients to be able to get the help and advice they need "without going to A&E":
But A&E Consultant Dr Steve McCabe told ITV News, "The introduction of 111 has generated a good deal of dissatisfaction, particularly in emergency departments and amongst paramedics".
"The dissatisfaction comes from what we see as inappropriate use of ambulance services, for example, to bring patients to emergency departments with relatively minor illness or minor injury", he continued.
Dr McCabe claimed it was a "widely-held opinion amongst emergency medics and doctors - both at national level and at local level - that 111 is increasing attendances [at A&E] unnecessarily".
Public Health Minister Anna Soubry said the Government knows there is a problem with the NHS 111 service in some areas.
– Public Health Minister Anna Soubry
In some areas it's working well, in some areas not so well.
We need to learn from that and we need to make sure that we have a proper service so we know people are getting good advice so they know where to go to to get the best treatment, to get the best remedy, but without putting pressure on A&E that it doesn't need to have.
Ms Soubry said over a million more people going to A&E departments every year, which is causing "a lot of difficulties".