Doctors warn new NHS 111 phone number will lead to THREE TIMES more ambulance call-outs
New 111 phone number will be first port of call for patients with urgent, not life-threatening, symptomsThe Department Of Health has set an April 2013 deadline for introducing the helplineIt will replace NHS DirectBMA warns of cost and safety issues due to line being manned by call centre staff with six weeks' training

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UPDATED:

09:51 GMT, 29 May 2012

Doctors have warned that the new 111 phone number for non-emergency services has led to up to three times more ambulance call-outs and could lower the standard of care that children receive.

The Department Of Health has laid down an April 2013 deadline for introducing the 111 helpline, which will replace NHS Direct as the first port of call for patients with urgent, but not life-threatening, symptoms.

But the British Medical Association's conference of GPs last week urged the Government to delay implementing the number due to 'serious concerns about the design and precipitous introduction of the 111 model'.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley in a pilot 111 call centre. Doctors have warned that the new helpline has led to up to three times more ambulance call-outs

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley in a pilot 111 call centre. Doctors have warned that the new helpline has led to up to three times more ambulance call-outs

And private sector operators have threatened to boycott the bidding process because of concerns about cost and the practicality of the plans.

Care UK, Capita and Serco have withdrawn from the tender process, leaving Harmoni and publically-owned ambulance trusts as the only potential bidders.

Capita cited a lack of organisation as its reason, saying the 111 line had not been 'constructed in a manner that will result in cost effective services'.

NHS Direct employs 3,000 staff, of which 40 per cent are trained nurses.

But the 111 number will be staffed by call centre handlers with just six weeks' training.

The BMA claims this will lead to more referrals and will prove a particularly risky enterprise for vulnerable patients.

Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the BMA's GP committee said: 'A potentially dangerous version of NHS 111 is set to burst forth upon an unsuspecting public from April

'Patients may end up being sent to the wrong place, waiting longer, blocking A&E and using ambulances needlessly, when a little more consideration might make it all work properly.'

Critics claim the 111 number leads to ambulances being sent out unnecessarily

Critics claim the 111 number leads to ambulances being sent out unnecessarily

Mary McCarthy, a GP from Shropshire who is part of a doctors' co-operative Shropdoc, said the pilot schemes showed that ambulance dispatch rates are now three times as high in these four areas.

'That's treble the costs,' she told The Guardian. 'Also, we see evidence of poorer care to children.'

In February, the BMA wrote to the Government saying the deadline for introducing the 111 number needs to be relaxed from its current date of April 2013.

In a letter to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, the BMA said doctors had raised a 'number of serious problems and concerns' in the pilot schemes used to test the new number.

They included concerns over the level of medical training staff will have in the new service, and whether they will be able to direct patients to the right help.

Doctors said they have not had enough time to get involved in the project, and are concerned 'patients will actually receive lower quality care'.

The 111 number is currently being piloted in County Durham and Darlington, Luton and the East Midlands.

In January, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned that up to 300 frontline staff at NHS Direct could lose their jobs under new shift arrangements as the new 111 number is phased in.

Workers who are unable to join the new shift pattern will lose their jobs, including those with flexible working arrangements already in place, such as those caring for children, it said.

NHS Direct denied the claims, saying 79 per cent of frontline staff had been offered 'one of their preferred roster patterns' and there were enough spaces for everyone to be allocated to a new roster.

NHS Direct is not the only organisation tendering to deliver NHS 111 services.

The new system could allow private and GP out-of-hours providers and the ambulance service, among others, to deliver the service.