Calling 111

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
August 31, 2010, 7:57 PM GMT+0

As the Government announces plans to replace the non-emergency medical service NHS Direct with a new non-emergency 111 number, many of our panellists have highlighted many of the pertinent issues surrounding this influential decision, with some welcoming the 111 number idea, in comparison to others who questioned how useful the scheme would be in comparison to the soon-to-be-gone NHS Direct service that is already in place.

We asked members of our panel to comment on the issue just as the new 111 number was tentatively piloted in County Durham and Darlington, and the results provide interesting reading in light of the Government’s recently announced plans.

The number would act as a non-emergency, medically-focused counterpart to the current emergency number 999, for people who need advice and help but who are not in an emergency situation – exactly the remit of the current NHS Direct scheme. The Government argues that the new number will be a much more cost-effective system that will help relieve strain on the NHS budget. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley also argues that ‘by putting in place one, easily memorable 111 number… to run alongside the emergency 999 number, we will simplify NHS services for patients’.

Reduce the abuse of 999

And it seems the 111 health number scheme is widely supported among the panellists who answered our survey, with one saying it ‘should take the pressure off the 999 number with all the non-emergency calls that people wrongly make’. Many congratulated the new idea for providing a solution to the problem of those ‘abusing the 999 number’. The fact that it ‘is easy to remember’ was highlighted as another benefit, and many agreed that ‘if it is successful in County Durham and Darlington, [then] it should be extended’.

More than a call centre?

However, many feel that ‘there would need to be a lot of marketing to be done to convince people to use this number in the right situation instead of calling 999’. Another asks if NHS Direct needs to be scrapped at all: ‘Why not just make the NHS Direct number 111, and combine [its] current service with that suggested for 111’? Some simply questioned the need for a new system, with one asking ‘What’s wrong with NHS Direct?’’ Indeed, critics of the new idea have highlighted that the new number will have fewer qualified nurses answering calls, and Former Labour Health Secretary Frank Dobson, who helped establish NHS Direct in 1998, feels that the new number will link to nothing more than a ‘call centre’.

Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct has hit back at suggestions that ‘cost-effectiveness’ means ‘getting less’, saying that ‘the new helpline will be better and more cost effective than NHS Direct’. And it seems many panellists agree, with one saying that ‘they always feel unsure about ringing 999’, and would ‘feel like an idiot if it was not an emergency’ [so] and another feeling that ‘this would be an excellent idea’.