RCN makes urgent call for more clinicians on NHS 111 after allegations of poor service

More clinicians should be placed on the NHS 111 helpline after claims that suicidal callers 'put on hold until they hang up'.
Call centre

More clinicians should be placed on the NHS 111 helpline after claims that suicidal callers 'put on hold until they hang up'

Call centre
An undercover reporter claims that some NHS 111 call handlers fell
asleep at their desks. Picture: iStock

Claims that suicidal patients using a call centre in west London were left on hold until they hung up are being investigated by the NHS. 

An undercover reporter for The Sun newspaper working for the service claimed that some call handlers fell asleep at their desks and would describe themselves as ‘busy’ on the internal computer system to avoid new calls and new patients. 

Technical glitches reportedly ended with one handler hanging up on at least three patients, including one with heart palpitations. 

Urgent investigations

The NHS is urgently investigating the allegations about the centre at St Charles Hospital in Ladbroke Grove, which provides 24-hour support for callers from 11 boroughs in north, west and central London. 

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘If any wrongdoing whatsoever is found, including criminal actions, we will want to see the police and relevant NHS regulators alerted as necessary.’ 

RCN professional lead for acute, emergency and critical care Anna Crossley said that more clinical staff were needed on the line.  

‘NHS 111 deals with over 14 million calls per year and there is a clear lack of clinicians available to take calls currently,’ she said. 

‘There are future plans to have a far higher number of multidisciplinary healthcare professionals available to provide clinical advice to patients, but more are clearly needed right now to prevent incidences like this from happening.’ 

Non-clinical staff

Regional-based NHS 111 call centres replaced the nationally organised, nurse-led NHS Direct in December 2013.

The NHS 111 service is staffed mainly by non-clinical call handlers who follow a set flowchart of questions, with answers triggering different courses of action. 

In March, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said access for patients to nurses and other staff on NHS 111 would be increased to ease pressures on emergency departments.

He pledged to increase the number of NHS 111 callers speaking to a clinician from 22.4% in January to 30% by March 2018.  

Simon Douglass, medical director of the London Central and West Unscheduled Care Collaborative, which runs the centre, said: ‘We take any allegations extremely seriously and have launched an urgent investigation.’

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