Winter pressures on the NHS don’t just affect hospitals, their impact can be felt right through the whole health service. This extends to NHS 111, the phone and online service that provides people with 24/7 access to advice about their immediate health needs, and which can help them get the right medical help if it’s required.
This impact was already seen in most pre-pandemic years, where the percentage of calls answered in a timely way by England’s NHS 111 would drop in winter (from December to February).
At the end of November/start of December this winter, the average daily percentage of all calls answered within 60 seconds was 34%, which is much lower than in every recent winter. And although this percentage has improved in recent weeks, the service has not yet managed to reach pre-pandemic levels of performance when looking at the same weeks in those years. This is despite the service answering a similar number of calls to the previous two winters. Provisional monthly data for December shows that the average time to answer a call was actually nine minutes and 27 seconds.
NHS 111 has, however, been receiving more calls (whether answered or not) this winter so far, compared to previous winters. NHS 111 attributes the slower answering of calls to a higher volume of calls received. However, they also say that performance is being negatively affected by staffing issues (turnover, recruitment and training) and Covid-19 pressures causing absences due to sickness or isolation.
Some of the increase in the number of calls received may be down to more people having health issues, but it may also be because individuals are not getting through quickly enough on their first call. If they hang up before being answered, they may call again later, and so multiple calls received are recorded for the same issue. Comparing the number of calls abandoned over the years might have helped to unpick this, but the data this year is not comparable to previous winters.
What’s the potential impact of this? As well as having a detrimental effect on patient experience, prolonged delays mean more calls being abandoned by patients. This generates clinical risk and could jeopardise patient safety. It may also put other urgent care services under more pressure as patients seek care from other services when they don’t get a timely response. Alongside the issues raised in our other charts of the week this winter, it all points to a system (and not just hospitals) under considerable pressure.