Callers from Hertfordshire and west Essex who are seeking medical advice through ‘111’ are waiting too long to have their calls answered, data shows – with one in four hanging up.
According to the NHS, ‘111’ is the number to call for anyone who needs medical help fast – but don’t have a ‘999’ emergency.
And it can be accessed for those who need advice, but who can’t get an appointment to see their GP.
National targets suggest the vast majority of those calls – 95 per cent – should be answered within 60 seconds.
But latest local data – presented to a joint meeting of the clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) on Thursday (January 27) – shows that less than one in four calls in Hertfordshire and west Essex (23.4 per cent) were answered within the minute (October 2021).
And a similar proportion of those callers (25.3 per cent) actually hung up the phone before their call was answered – after waiting for 30 seconds or longer.
According to the report to the CCG boards, high call volumes and ‘workforce constraints’ impacted on performance.
There were, according to the report, 60,277 calls made (48,102 in Hertfordshire, 12,175 in west Essex) in October.
That’s 6,850 more than the previous month and more than 10,000 more than the same period the year before.
Meanwhile it also points to high sickness rates, short term absences and ‘as a result of the need to isolate when family members test positive for Covid’.
To address the issue, the report points to a range of measures taken including working with recruitment companies to fill vacancies – as well as support and welfare measures.
And to encourage staff to pick up vacant shifts they have introduced overtime incentives and increased home working for health advisers.
The report to the board suggests that ‘supporting actions’ and ‘a recovery plan’ has led to improvements since October.
Following the meeting, Beverley Flowers, Deputy CEO Herts Valleys, West Essex and East & North Hertfordshire CCGs, said that the NHS 111 service had offered “invaluable support to people across Hertfordshire since the start of the pandemic”.
She said call NHS 111 call volumes had “risen significantly and persistently” nationally – with Hertfordshire “an area of particular increase”.
And at the same time she said staff absences had been challenging to manage.
“These issues have affected NHS 111 services across the whole country, with pressures on other system partners including primary care having a knock on effect on the numbers of patients contacting alternative services,” she said..
“HUC, the organisation that runs NHS 111 in Hertfordshire, is dedicated to providing high quality care and recruitment has accelerated with the support of additional funding.”
Meanwhile latest published data suggests that across the Hertfordshire and West Essex region almost a third of patients waited in excess of four hours in accident and emergency in October.
National targets say that 95 per cent of patients visiting A&E should be seen within four hours.
But data presented to a meeting of the region’s clinical commissioning groups suggest that in November that figure was just 69.2 per cent.
At Watford General 70.52 per cent of patients were seen within four hours – with three 12 hour waits.
At the Lister Hospital the data shows 68.82 per cent of patients were seen within four hours – and there was one 12 hour wait.
But at Princess Alexandra Hospital just 59.65 per cent of patients were seen within four hours – and the data records 143 waits that were 12 hours or longer.
Following the meeting, in response to the data on A&E waiting times Beverley Flowers, Deputy CEO Herts Valleys, West Essex and East & North Hertfordshire CCGs, pointed to the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
“NHS staff have worked incredibly hard this winter, dealing with a rebound in demand for urgent and emergency care, and treatment backlogs that have built up while more than 500,000 patients across the country with Covid-19 were treated,” she said.
“The way that our urgent and emergency departments operate continues to be affected by Covid.
“All patients are tested for infection on arrival, and patients with Covid are treated in separate areas to prevent the spread of infection.
“Social distancing and enhanced cleaning regimes also affect the speed at which patients can be treated.
“At the same time, Covid-related staff illness and self-isolation has reduced staffing numbers.
The public, she said, could continue to support patients and staff in A&E departments by checking with NHS 111 before they travel and by wearing face coverings whenever they attend hospital.