NHS 111 phone line will undergo 'fundamental' reform, Jeremy Hunt promises

He says the service needs to be made simpler and its algorithm changed

Jon Stone
Tuesday 26 January 2016 14:25 GMT
Clinicians no longer form the basis for the NHS's flagship helpline service
Clinicians no longer form the basis for the NHS's flagship helpline service (Getty Images)

The NHS 111 phone line service will undergo “fundamental” reform in the wake of a report into an unnecessary death of a child, Jeremy Hunt has said.

William Mead, from Cornwall, died of Sepsis after NHS 111 failed to diagnose his condition.

The 111 service was rolled out by the Coalition government by early 2014 to replace the NHS Direct phone line.

The change was criticised at the time because NHS Direct’s call handlers were mainly nurses, while the new service used non-clinician staff in call centres using a piece of computer software.

An inquiry into the effectiveness of NHS 111 launched after Mead’s death found that a trained doctor or nurse would have been more likely to successfully identify that the child was suffering from Sepsis.

The report said that might have saved the boy’s life because the tool used by the untrained call handlers was not adequate to detect sepsis.

Responding to an urgent question in Parliament about the issue, the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said changes to the algorithm used by call centre workers could help prevent future problems.

He also said the service would be reformed in order to make it more simple.

“With respect to 111 I think there are some things that we can do quickly in response to this report but I think there is a more fundamental change we can make to 111 as well,” he told MPs.

“The thing we can do quickly is to look at the algorithms that are used by the call handlers to make sure that they are sensitive to those red flag signs of sepsis. This is a very important thing that needs to happen.

“But fundamentally, when you look at the totality of what the Meade family suffered there is a confusion in the public’s mind about what exactly you do about an urgent care need.

“The issue is that there are too many choices and you can’t always get through quickly to the help that you need. We need to improve the simplicity of the system where you aren’t asked a barrage of questions but where you get through to clinical care more quickly so you simplify the options.”

At the Conservative party conference last year Mr Hunt said he increasingly wanted algoritms and protocals to replace doctors and clinicians in some circumstances.

He told a fringe event at the time that evidence collected in the US health system showed this was safer.

Heidi Alexander, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said call handlers received as little as six weeks training and called for an increase in the number of clinically trained staff who responded to calls.

One-year-old William Mead, from Penryn, died on 14 December 2014.

His death was initially put down to natural causes, but a coroner later found that he had died of sepsis, a form of blood poisoning.

Melissa Mead, the boy’s mother said: “We are glad the report has shown up there were failures and missed opportunities. We hope from the recommendations made this never happens again.

“We fought the hardest battle to get answers, knowing we had already lost William.”

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