The chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, said "substantial changes" to the 111 service are needed to stem the rise in A&E attendances.
Mr Stevens also called for changes to urgent care, as figures showed the health service is struggling to cope against several performance targets.
He told members of the NHS England board that the NHS was under pressure, but thanked hard-working staff.
He added that a principal driver of a reduction in the number of beds available in hospitals was delayed transfers of care, which "have gone up by 90% over the past two years".
The national director for operations and information at NHS England said frontline services came under "real pressure" in December, as figures showed a raft of targets missed.
Matthew Swindells said: "NHS frontline services came under real pressure in December with A&E, ambulances and NHS 111 all helping record numbers of patients and callers.
"Despite these pressures, it is a tribute to the professionalism and dedication of doctors, nurses and other staff in A&E that they continue to see, treat, admit or discharge the vast majority of patients within four hours.
"Also of note: the elective admissions growth rate accelerated in the third quarter to September-December, compared with the first six months of the year and the number of longest waiting patients fell this month."
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