Helpline launch put back over concerns

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The full launch of the new NHS 111 telephone helpline in Sheffield has been delayed by three months amid concerns over the system’s safety.

The line – intended to replace the old NHS Direct service, GP out-of-hours numbers and the handling of urgent dental calls – was supposed to be officially up and running last month.

However, Sheffield’s NHS Clinical Commissioning Group says the service will not be properly in place in the city until Tuesday, July 2.

The free number is for patients with urgent, but non-life-threatening symptoms.

Trained advisers who answer the phones offer basic health advice and direct the caller to the most appropriate service, such as hospital or an on-call doctor.

However, an NHS England report said the service remained in a ‘fragile’ state elsewhere in the country where the number is already operating.

The report said there had been ‘potentially serious’ incidents, including a patient who died unexpectedly.

There were also reports of calls going unanswered.

A survey of more than 80 doctors in the North East found 83 per cent thought out-of-hours services had worsened since the introduction of the 111 number.

In a paper prepared for a board meeting of the Sheffield commissioning group, Daniel Mason, South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw’s NHS 111 lead, said the helpline was supposed to have a ‘soft launch’ on March 5.

He said: “Soft launch meant there would be very limited publicity and only calls normally handled by out-of-hours or urgent dental providers would be taken by NHS 111 in the first instance.

“However, following assessment of the capability of the NHS 111 provider to provide a safe service for all Yorkshire and Humberside CCGs, it was decided to only proceed with a soft launch in West Yorkshire and Bassetlaw.

“Consequently, out-of- hours and urgent dental providers in the remaining areas were required to put in place contingency arrangements to continue to take calls until such time as full launch could be achieved.”

Mr Mason said the decision to delay was taken for ‘clinical reasons’.

On March 19, the 111 service began taking Sheffield calls previously handled by NHS Direct, with a planned full launch date of April 9, but out-of-hours enquiries will now not be dealt with until the summer.

Sheffield calls will be answered by Yorkshire Ambulance Service and social enterprise Local Care Direct.