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‘Astonishing’ number of calls to NHS24 abandoned every month

Almost 50,000 calls to NHS 24 are abandoned every single month
Almost 50,000 calls to NHS 24 are abandoned every single month

Ministers have been warned lives could be lost after new figures revealed the “astonishing” number of NHS 24 calls being abandoned every month.

Between September 2021 and January 2022, 249,690 calls to the 111 number went unanswered – an average of 48,138 calls every single month.

The highest number of abandoned attempts during this period was in September, when a 68,119 calls were left unanswered.

In the same month, patients waited on average 31 minutes and 56 seconds to speak about their conditions.

Meanwhile over the festive period, 46,000 calls were abandoned in December alone.

The Scottish Conservatives described the figures as “completely unacceptable and unsustainable”.

The party is calling on Health Secretary Humza Yousaf to step in and take action.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane MSP says the figures, obtained through a freedom of information request, are especially concerning because patients are often told to call NHS 24 before turning up at A&E.

He warned this could cause a “dangerous bottleneck” in the NHS.

Dr Gulhane said: “The number of abandoned calls to NHS 24 is astonishing and deeply concerning.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane MSP

“Patients have been encouraged to use NHS 24 as a first port of call before going to Scotland’s desperately over-stretched A&E wards, so some of these calls will relate to serious conditions.

“This has created another dangerous bottleneck in our NHS, which is at absolute breaking point under the SNP.

“Potentially life-threatening incidents are likely to have been missed as a result of so many calls not being connected.”

Dr Gulhane said the number of calls being missed is “systematic of a health service in crisis on the SNP’s watch, despite the heroic efforts of those working and volunteering in our NHS”.

“Humza Yousaf has completely failed to step up and give NHS 24 the resources they need,” he said.

“All too often he is taking his eye off the ball and only reacting when it is too late.

“These figures must act as a catalyst for the SNP’s health secretary to urgently outline a plan that will guarantee patients can be confident their calls to NHS 24 will be answered at all times.”

NHS 24 promises to help patients

NHS 24 aims to provide urgent care, advice and mental health support at all times of the day and night.

However, the service has become stretched due to winter pressures and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Between September 2021 and January 2022, a quarter of all calls to NHS 24 were people calling about coronavirus symptoms.

Since early 2020, the number of calls to the 111 number has increased by 50%, as NHS 24 moves from being predominantly an out-of-hours service to a 24/7 operation.

A spokeswoman for NHS 24 said that when people call 111, they are given an automated message of other places they can go for information – and this could be why so many calls are abandoned.

An NHS 24 call centre

The spokeswoman said: “Our automated telephone messaging system gives callers options of alternative routes to safe and effective care at the start of the call, which may be better aligned to their individual needs.

“This clear signposting means people may choose to end their call to 111.

“For example, in the case of an emergency, callers will always be advised to dial 999.

“Someone calling for information about the Omicron variant may choose to hang up and dial the Covid information line.

“We also advise people that they may be able to get help from their local community pharmacy, or via our symptom checkers on NHSinform.scot which saw a significant increase (140%) in visitors during the period highlighted.

“In addition to helping people find the right care in the right place, NHS 24 responded to the increase in service demand with a rapid expansion of the workforce couple with the expansion of NHS 24’s estate.”

Recent improvements include hiring 422 new members of staff, opening three new centres, including one in Dundee, and upgrading two others.

The service has also employed a number of temporary operators to help deal with the additional coronavirus calls.

Government spends millions on NHS 24

The Scottish Conservatives have placed the blame for the high number of abandoned calls squarely at the door of the Scottish Government and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf visiting an NHS 24 call centre

A government spokesman acknowledged that some patients have experienced longer wait times than normal during the pandemic due to increased demand.

But he added that calls to the service can be abandoned for a variety of reasons, including patients choosing to end the call after being connected and hearing the options available to them.

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