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Helpline 'puts pressure on A&Es'

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The new NHS helpline is putting pressure on accident and emergency departments because its telephone operators do not have the medical training they need to properly diagnose patients, a Liberal Democrat MP has said.

Martin Horwood said the 111 advice line was actually causing longer waits at emergency departments because operators were referring patients to their local hospital as a precaution rather than asking a GP to phone them back.

The telephone line was set up by the government last month to ease the burden on A&E departments by offering patients who are not facing a life-threatening 999 emergency urgent medical advice.

The British Medical Association has already questioned the quality of advice given out amid fears that patients had been forced to wait hours for advice.

Mr Horwood (Cheltenham) said while there had been a “seasonal upturn” in waiting times at A&E departments as a result of contagious illnesses over the winter, he feared the 111 advice line was actually putting more pressure on hospitals.

He said: “There is a new factor in the mix, there is the new 111 out-of-hours service. I have anecdotal evidence at least from local GPs at the moment, that they think far more referrals into hospital and into A&E departments are occurring as a result of the 111 service coming in.

“Actually, they think they ran a rather good out-of-hours service before… but the new 111 service is clearly causing problems if those accounts by local GPs are to be believed.

“Clearly, we have to gather reliable data on this but certainly the evidence that I have had from doctors is that they are getting fewer requests to call back to patients through the 111 service.

“They think there have been a number of individual cases where they think people have been referred they think unnecessarily into A&E, partly because the initial triage is being done by people who aren’t medically qualified who have a stock set of questions to ask.

“It is not very sensitive, they are not very medically qualified and in a way the safest thing it seems to me is for the operators to say ‘well, actually the best thing for you to do is go to A&E’.

“If this is responsible for part of this upsurge in cases, then it’s adding to the problems we already have.”

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