Paramedics in Wiltshire say vital time is being wasted because they have been sent to patients with minor ailments by a private company which is classing the calls as emergencies.
South Western Ambulance Service has had to put on extra ambulance crews to cope with increased demand which the Gazette understands to be 30 extra 999 calls a day in Wiltshire and the same in Avon and Gloucestershire.
Crews fear it could affect them getting to genuine emergencies quickly enough but NHS bosses say these are “teething problems”.
The change has come about due to a new non-emergency telephone number, 111, being introduced in April to replace NHS Direct. Harmoni, part of the country’s biggest care provider, Care UK, won the contract to run 111 in Wiltshire.
Last week it began testing it when people called their GP surgeries out of hours. The workers at Harmoni are not clinicians and undergo six weeks’ training on a computerised system that tells them which questions to ask the callers.
A paramedic told the Gazette: “It’s causing absolute havoc. People are ringing 111 and the calls are not being prioritised and they are being transferred to our control.
“We are going out to vast amounts of calls that don’t warrant a 999 response including patients with a sore throat, patients stuck in a chair, patients with ear ache and painful wrist.”
The paramedic said in the majority of 111 calls, ambulance staff did not take patients to hospital and instead referred them back to their GP.
The experienced paramedic added: “My concern is people who need a genuine 999 response, such as someone with chest pain, might not get it in time. The increase in 999 calls from 111 has been huge and the calls don’t warrant our attendance. If it carries on like this it’s going to be catastrophic and people will die.”
Health union Unison says it warned NHS bosses that the introduction of the 111 number and handing it to a private company to run would lead to problems.
South Western Ambulance Service has put on extra ambulance crews to cope with 30 extra 999 calls a day because 111 calls are being given wrong priority.
Unison’s Great Western branch secretary Jo Fowles said: “The provision of 111 has done exactly what we predicted. It’s not producing an efficient service, it’s not providing good patient-focused care and it is putting huge pressure on the ambulance service.
“The ambulance service is ramping up its response so nobody suffers, but this is the NHS covering the mistakes of private health care and as a consequence isn’t a long-term solution.
“Unison is calling for the commissioners to give the contract back to the NHS.”
A paramedic said patients who called the 111 number with minor problems were surprised to find an ambulance arriving at the door.
“We are picking up calls that are completely inappropriate and we are having to respond with lights and sirens on,” they said.
“Some of the patients concerned are astonished that an ambulance has turned up. They said they wanted to speak to a doctor or get some advice.
“While crews are dealing with these inappropriate cases they have to do observations on the patients which commits them at the scene for a considerable time.”
A spokesman for South Western Ambulance Service said the service employed extra call handlers and ambulance crews when testing for 111 began on February 19. It had an enhanced paramedic in the 111 control room in Bristol for advice on calls that could be handled by the 111 service.
He said there had been an increase in calls following the partial introduction of the 111 service.
“The introduction of a new service inevitably involved some uncertainty and potential disruption. However, SWASFT, and indeed the wider healthcare service, has worked hard to ensure that patients continue to receive high quality treatment and advice however they attempt to access it,” he said.
“We are confident the 111 service will lead to better service and outcomes for patients, including freeing up 999 resources for those suffering immediate medical emergencies.”
A spokesman for NHS Wiltshire, which awarded the 111 contract to Harmoni, said: “With a new service such as this there can often be teething problems, but we are working closely with the provider, GPs, the ambulance service and other out-of-hours staff to ensure that any feedback is acted upon promptly.
“We know that there were some issues with the service during a typically busy period on the morning of Saturday (February 23) and a number of bad patient experiences have been reported to us.
“The service was not good enough and as part of the continual review being undertaken during this vital ‘testing’ period, lessons will be learned.”
Harmoni, which will be paid £6.5 million to provide 111 in Wiltshire for the next five years, was told not to comment by NHS Wiltshire.
Wiltshire Medical Services, based in Chippenham, runs the GP out of hours services in Wiltshire and bid to run the 111 service as part of a consortium but lost out to Harmoni.