Learning the lessons of 111

NHS England has reported that the 111 telephone service has successfully coped with the May Bank Holiday weekend without major problems.  With providers taking on more call handlers in the run up to the weekend the early signs are that the 111 service responded to the vast majority of the 100,000 callers over the weekend.

However, chief nursing officer Jane Cummings acknowledged that improvements were still required before all forty-six 111 services were up and running as expected.  Run by a mix of providers including private firms and ambulance services, the 111 service has seen some teething problems.  This has resulted in some services being suspended or receiving special help.

Last week NHS England agreed to commission an external review to look at the problems which have beset the introduction of the 111 telephone service; both as a guide to actions required to bring the service up to full strength and as a learning point for future projects.  Whilst some areas of the country seem to have experienced a fairly smooth transition, others have been beset with problems including calls not being answered and major delays experienced by those waiting for calls back from medical specialists.

Designed to serve the needs of those who are too ill to be able to wait until they can see their doctor within hours but are uncertain if they should call an ambulance the 111 service is designed to be able to direct callers to the most appropriate service for their needs including GP out of hours, A&E or calling an ambulance if required.  This means that the service may receive a wide variety of calls from those who are concerned about their own, or a loved one’s, health and in those circumstances any delay in responding can lead to distress and anxiety.

In fact it’s not just the 111 service which can suffer from delayed call answering.  Any call which goes unanswered can potentially lead to frustration on the part of the caller, whether the call is to a health practitioner or not.  For those health practitioners who work closely with patients this can cause a dilemma.  If the answer a call they may be interrupting an existing treatment but if they ignore the call they risk losing a potential patient or their goodwill.

The solution is to appoint a virtual assistant service which will respond to callers, book appointments, manage diaries and take messages.   Appointing a virtual assistant service which specialises in health matters will also pay dividends as the call answerers will be able to talk knowledgeably to patients about their treatments with empathy and attention to detail and will better understand when messages should be marked as urgent.  We will be keeping an eye on the NHS England review as well as the progress of the 111 service and will report on any findings which may be of interest to our health practitioner clients.

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