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111 call firm told: improve
12:30pm Thursday 14th March 2013 in News
HARMONI, the private firm which has been sending ambulances to people with minor ailments such as hiccups, has been told it must improve.
Since the company started testing the 111 service in the evenings and at weekends three weeks ago, South Western Ambulance Service has been inundated with extra calls and crews say the vast majority are inappropriate.
It has put on extra staff to cope with the calls passed to it from 111 operators.
Harmoni was due to operate the 111 number 24/7 from next Tuesday, replacing NHS Direct.
But NHS Wiltshire, which awarded the £6.5m five-year contract to Harmoni, said yesterday it would not support this until improvements have been made.
Dr Ian Orpen, chairman of Bath and North East Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We remain extremely concerned about it and the bottom line is we would not be happy to sanction 111 going into the next phase at its current level of performance.”
Ambulance crews have spoken of their frustration at continuing to be sent to inappropriate cases and say they are being run ragged.
A paramedic in Wiltshire said: “The workload is unbelievable and staff are exhausted. Most of the jobs we are being sent on via 111 are minor, such as people who have had back pain for several days or have a cough. It’s horrendous, I have never known such chaos or inappropriate calls being passed to us.
“We are an emergency service and shouldn’t be going to most of the 111 calls. Patients are embarrassed when we turn up and say they wanted to speak to a doctor for advice.”
The experienced paramedic estimated that 20 per cent of 111 calls they have been sent to had resulted in patients being taken to hospital by ambulance.
Jo Fowles, branch secretary for Unison in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Avon, said if inappropriate 111 calls lead to South Western Ambulance Service not meeting its performance targets staff would be very disappointed.
She said: “It would be a real kicking for morale especially as we have pulled out all the stops to paper over the cracks of 111.”
A spokesman for the South West Ambulance Service said: “We have had cases of patients with stroke symptoms, and those who didn’t realise they were having a heart attack, rightly passed to the 999 service and ambulance staff have provided an excellent service to those patients in critical need.
“Equally, we know that there are still inappropriate calls being referred to 999. NHS 111 is a new service and we expect it to take a while to bed in.”