Jeremy Hunt has been condemned by doctors for offering "ludicrous" and "potentially fatal advice" to parents who suspect their children of having a rash.
The Health Secretary, who yesterday admitted that the NHS out-of-ours hotline needed more doctors and nurses to prevent another tragedy like the death of one-year-old William Mead, said that the public were confused about where they could get urgent medical help.
However, he then suggested parents could look online to determine the severity of their child’s rash, attracting considerable criticism from medical professionals.
Mr Hunt said: ‘We may well need more 111 doctors and nurses. But if you’re worried about a rash your child has, an online alternative – where you look at photographs and say 'my child’s rash looks like this one' – may be a quicker way of getting to the bottom of whether this is serious or not.’
The comments, which were published in the Daily Mail, have led to claims that Mr Hunt is encouraging parents to “Google” symptoms – and putting lives at risk.
Dr Hamed Khan, an emergency department doctor at St Georges hospital in London told The Independent the Health Secretary’s comments could “potentially put lives at risk”.
Dr Khan said: “I see lots of children with rashes. I am worried that parents will take the Health Secretary's advice, and potentially miss very serious illnesses like meningitis – which could have fatal consequences. The Health Secretary should publicly retract this statement, and accept that it was a grave error of judgement.”
“Making this distinction requires clinical skill and focussed training of the highest level. Many A&E departments have a rule that some junior doctors cannot see and discharge patients from paediatric A&E without discussing it with a senior doctor. Considering this, it is ludicrous to think that a person without clinical training can use the internet to search through some pictures and do this.
Dr Thom O’Neill, a general paediatric doctor in a children's hospital, said that while appropriate use of emergency services is sensible, the “encouragement of internet searches for potentially serious conditions is worrying to see coming from the secretary of state for health”.
He added: "The effects of Mr Hunt’s advice to parents could well be fatal if they lead to delayed presentation of sick children whose parents have been falsely reassured by a Google search.
"Every paediatrician I have spoken to has been shocked by Hunt’s latest advice. The NHS Act abrogated responsibility for the nation’s health from the Secretary of State. Doctors do have responsibility for health and will have to deal with the potentially disastrous effects of this advice.”
Other doctors publicly criticised Mr Hunt on Twitter, sharing images of rashes with the hashtag "rashdecision" and asking social media users whether they could spot the difference.
The Department of Health declined to provide a comment on the issue. They did, however, stress that parents should access the appropriate services and shouldn’t hesitate to contact a GP.
Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s health spokesman, said: ‘Parents need medical advice, not a search engine. Ministers need to take urgent action to address the problems facing NHS 111.’
Mr Hunt made the comments during a meeting with the family of William Mead – the one-year-old who died in December 2014, after GPs, out of hours services and a 111 call handler failed to spot he had sepsis caused by an underlying chest infection and pneumonia. The health secretary publicly apologised to the family earlier this week on behalf of the government and the NHS.
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