How do you decide if your condition is serious enough for you to go straight to Accident and Emergency or straightforward enough to wait for a GP appointment or whether your needs might be best addressed at a walk in centre or minor injuries unit?
Being unwell or involved in a minor accident is unpleasant and, at times, frightening. Making a sensible and clear-headed decision in these circumstances about the appropriate treatment venue is tough without medical knowledge or training.
The 111 service is designed to offer quick medical help when the circumstances are not urgent and to advise on the best place to seek treatment. Unfortunately, recent press reports have highlighted failings in the way that the service is delivered.
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) called for urgent action to protect patients on 10 May, following confirmation in Pulse Magazine that NHS England is investigating 22 untoward incidents arising from patients using the 111 service, including three incidents where patients have died. Bear in mind that these incidents have arisen since the soft launch of the system on 1 April 2013.
The RCGP comments that a “patchwork quilt” of services leaves patients “in a situation of not knowing where to turn for help or facing long delays in trying to access the service.” Long delays in accessing a healthcare service inevitably lead to a delay in diagnosis which in turn delays appropriate treatment. Unacceptable delays in treatment that cause patients harm could amount to negligent treatment.
Many clinical negligence claims arise from failures in communication. A “patchwork quilt” of services can only increase the risk of medical staff not communicating with one another, leaving patients in a vulnerable position.
No-one wants to be accused of wasting NHS time or to be told that they should have sought treatment less urgently. However, unless the 111 can give a reliable and quick response to callers, there will be some patients who do not get the help they need and others will be left with no alternative but to seek alternative treatment.