Health officials are considering whether Northern Ireland should follow England’s example in having a single telephone number for GP out-of-hours services. The province currently has seven contact numbers and a single line was suggested in the Transforming Your Care review document, published in December 2011.
An urgent care contact number, it suggested, could operate alongside 999 and help people in non-emergency situations to get the right advice. Out-of-hours services are designed to provide urgent care cases, where a patient can generally walk into the centre, receive treatment and walk out again.
The 111 number was introduced in England in July although it does not yet cover the whole of the country. 111 is a series of local services and call handlers can book ambulances and out-of-hours GP appointments. However, it has fewer staff than its predecessor (NHS Direct), meaning that the 60-second response time is often missed. Some patients have been wrongly referred to A&E units.
Pilots started in 2010 and the service was due to be launched in April. The final services will now be rolled out in Cornwall and North Essex in early 2014. Contracts were cancelled in both cases due to insufficient funding.
Press coverage of the services suggest that they are viewed as a low priority, when compared to A&E, although they also deal with distressed patients and could take pressure off hospitals if they operated efficiently.
A Health and Social Care Board spokeswoman said that the board, along with the Ambulance Service and Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, was “keeping up to date with the development of the 111 number to ensure we learn from the experiences in England.”
agendaNi understands that board officials are keen to see how the existing providers, which include ambulance services and private companies, resolve 111’s existing problems before proceeding in Northern Ireland.