Patients failed by helpline disaster
Patients across the West Country using the new ‘111’ number specifically for non-emergencies are being told to call 999 instead – even if they have just a sore throat or need a doctor to prescribe more painkillers.
Furious paramedics have said the situation is ‘a complete disaster’ and health chiefs have admitted ‘teething problems’ with the new system, being run by a private company that won the contract after undercutting local doctors.
In one case, a cancer patient was left in agony for hours waiting for a doctor who did not turn up, and was told to call 999, even though she merely needed stronger painkillers to be prescribed by a doctor. Two paramedics had to remain at Gill Green’s home in Melksham, Wiltshire, for an hour and a half because even they could not get in touch with a doctor and could not leave until they knew one was coming.
“It is absolutely disgusting,” said the 61-year-old, who is suffering from bone cancer. “I never wanted a paramedic, or an ambulance, and my husband specifically dialled 111 because it was not an emergency. I just needed an out-of-hours doctor to prescribe stronger painkillers.
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“The two paramedics couldn’t even get hold of a doctor, and they sat on my settee drinking tea for an hour and half waiting to hear back from one.
“They had come all the way from Midsomer Norton and were out of action with me when there could have been someone having a heart attack down the road. It is just ludicrous,” she added.
Mrs Green’s husband called their local doctor’s surgery at 8.30pm last Wednesday evening to ask for a stronger prescription as the pain of his wife’s cancer had got too much for her. His call was redirected to the new 111 service, launched in a blaze of publicity earlier this year and heralded as an easier and more efficient way to deal with medical calls.
The entire system was designed for non-emergency calls to be dealt with by on-call doctors or on the phone, rather than bothering paramedics and ambulance personnel. The opposite has happened.
“My husband had to answer a series of questions and it was clear the person asking them was just going through a set list. They promised a doctor would come, but none came, so he phoned back three hours later and was told that if it was that bad he should phone 999 for me, so he did,” Mrs Green said. “The paramedic girls were wonderful, but they couldn’t prescribe me what I needed. Once they were here they couldn’t leave without making sure a doctor was coming, but even they couldn’t get through to one.
“In the end they spoke to one and was told one was coming, so they were able to go. He still didn’t arrive, so my husband rang the 111 number again and was told to ring 999 again,” she said
“Eventually a doctor did come, six hours after the first call and at 2.30am. He stayed just ten minutes, and admitted he was covering a huge area of Wiltshire on his own.
South West Ambulance Service said it has had to put on extra ambulances to deal with the increase in calls coming to them because of failures with the non-emergency number system – calls which are currently running at around 30 a day. Paramedics said they were being called to people with sore throats and painful elbows, and patients who had rung were surprised to find an ambulance at their door.
The new system is run by a private firm, Harmoni, which is part of Care UK. It won the contract to run the service in Wiltshire as a trial before the 111 number goes national in April. Harmoni is being paid £6.5 million over five years to run the out-of-hours non-emergency system.
A spokesman for NHS Wiltshire said: “With a new service such as this there can often be teething problems, but we are working closely with the provider, GPs, the ambulance service and other out-of-hours staff to ensure that any feedback is acted upon promptly. We know that there were some issues with the service during a typically busy period on the morning of Saturday and a number of bad patient experiences have been reported to us. The service was not good enough.”