Nearly one in four callers to the NHS urgent health advice line gives up while trying to get through, with people held on hold for almost 25 minutes in north-east England, the Observer can reveal.
NHS 111 is a 24 hour toll free hotline for people in urgent need of non-life threatening health care. The service is intended to connect callers with qualified clinicians and counselors who can then recommend further action or refer callers to local NHS services.
NHS performance targets state that callers should not be queued for more than 20 seconds on average. But in July, calls in England were answered after an average of 466 seconds – nearly eight minutes. That number has more than quadrupled since April, when it was 100 seconds.
Overall, 24% of NHS 111 callers in England hung up while waiting for their call to be answered – referred to as ‘abandoned’ calls – in July, up from 8% in April. The NHS target is 3%.
“These numbers show that another part of our emergency care system is increasingly able to deliver on its commitments,” said Sarah Scobie of the Nuffield Trust health think tank. “With Covid-19 still infecting thousands of people even as normal activity resumes, it has been a very difficult year after a long period of increasing pressure. Both general medicine and emergency rooms are also under great pressure despite the hard work of staff, forcing patients to find it difficult to access care wherever they turn.
Even now cases are stagnating rather than falling, and our concern is that if winter sees the usual increase in other serious illnesses, things could get even more difficult for NHS 111 and for those in need. help. “
Provisional figures for August show a slight improvement in performance but still largely miss targets, with 20% of calls abandoned and calls answered after an average of seven minutes.
The image varies greatly by region. In July, calls in London were answered after three minutes on average, with an abandon rate of 15%. This compares to the average wait of almost 25 minutes in the North East of England, with half of callers giving up.
Rachel Harrison, national official of the GMB union, said: “There are huge problems and a staffing crisis in all health and emergency services.
“The impacts of Covid-19 and delays in patient care have resulted in increased demand. Overburdened primary care services struggle to keep up with demand, forcing people to dial 111 instead of waiting for GP appointments.
“Staffing levels are at a critical point due to burnout and burnout, Covid disease and the impact of low wages on workers.
“It also directly affects our ambulance services, because when people can’t access 111, they turn to 999 – which in turn increases the demands and strain on our already overburdened ambulance services. “
An NHS spokesperson said: ‘NHS 111 call managers and clinicians are working extremely hard to meet increased demand, with call managers seeing a 44% increase in calls in July, compared to same month in 2019.
‘The NHS has invested an additional £ 23million in NHS 111 to help meet increased demand and the public can also play their part by using 111 online for urgent advice, calling 999 in cases involving life threatening or by consulting their local pharmacists for advice. for mild illnesses.
The spokesperson urged people to continue to contact NHS services if they have health problems or need treatment, regardless of pressure from the services.