NHS 24, Scotland’s out-of-hours telephone service, has announced that it is reversing the introduction of a new call-handling and IT system on “patient safety grounds”.
On Friday, following delays to calls being answered, NHS 24 said it had withdrawn its Future Programme from service and moved back to its previous system.
In a statement it said that, in spite of a huge amount of planning, system testing and staff training, the performance of the service over the past 10 days since it went live has “proved extremely challenging”.
“As winter approaches we expect weekend call volumes to significantly increase and our forecast indicates that service levels at weekends would fall below acceptable tolerances”
It is understood the system first went down within an hour of being launched, with some triage nurses resorting to pens and paper in order to help deal with callers to the service’s 111 phone number.
NHS 24 chief executive Ian Crichton said: “Major IT upgrades always bring a degree of challenge, but what makes implementation of our new technology solution unusually difficult is the need to keep patients safe, while we get it fully operational.
“As winter approaches we expect weekend call volumes to significantly increase and our forecast indicates that service levels at weekends would fall below acceptable tolerances,” he said. “It is for this reason that we have taken the decision today to roll back.
Mr Crichton NHS 24 would continue to develop the new system “offline” and renew preparations to reintroduce it during early 2016.
He added: “This is not a decision that we have taken lightly, given the significant investment to date, but one that will ensure we can continue to deliver vital and safe out of hours support to patients when they need it most during the coming winter.”
“While it’s regrettable that NHS 24 has had to defer the introduction of its new call-handling and IT system, it’s the right decision to have made in the interest of patient safety and the wellbeing of staff”
Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, said the decision, though “regrettable”, was the “right one” in the interests of patient safety and staff wellbeing.
“It’s clear that NHS24 felt the introduction of this new system at this time could have had an adverse impact [on patient safety]. It, therefore, had no choice but to take the decision announced [on Friday],” she said.
“We also know that staff at NHS 24 have been really struggling to try and cope with the new system, even ahead of the expected increase in their workload over the winter months, so this decision, while difficult, was also right in terms of staff wellbeing until the problems with the system are ironed out,” she said.
The programme, which dates back to 2009, was intended to improve patient service through service redesign supported by the modernisation of its core telephone and online technology.
Two external providers, Capgemini and BT, were contracted in 2011 to develop and introduce the system.
However, it has been dogged with problems. Originally due to be introduced in October 2013, it has so far cost around £117m and was the subject of a critical report by Audit Scotland in October this year.
At one stage, NHS 24 even launched legal action against Capgemini over contractual flaws, but this was subsequently withdrawn in June this year.