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NHS helpline rated inadequate.

A "consistently failing" NHS patient helpline has been rated inadequate in a report by health watchdog the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Patients requiring emergency care in the South West were left waiting for long periods the CQC report found.

Inspectors said the 111 service, run by South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT), put callers' safety at risk.

SWASFT chief executive, Ken Wenman, said that while there was no evidence that the service had caused clinical harm, he accepted it was "no way near what it should be.”

He said: "The CQC report does point out that we were understaffed. It's very difficult to recruit and retain clinical staff in this type of service, and that's the focus that we're going to be having as part of the improvements we're going to make during the coming months."

Joint branch secretary at Unison for South West Ambulance, Chris Nelson, said the report was “clearly very damning.”

He added: "What we experience within NHS 111 is indicative of the national problem with NHS 111. The service is poorly understood, poorly commissioned, poorly funded and will always fail, despite the clear and obvious efforts that are being made by our members."

Melissa Mead, whose son died of sepsis after the 111 service and GPs failed to spot his condition, said the report confirmed her doubts and suspicions but she hoped it would bring improvements to the service.

A team of 13 inspectors visited two call centres, which serve Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.

They found the service had been consistently failing to meet national standards and too many patients abandoned their calls due to long waiting times.

The report said staff were stressed and tired, and calls were being answered by staff who were not trained to assess patients' symptoms.

CQC chief inspector of hospitals, professor Sir Mike Richards, said patients were at risk of harm because the system used to assess the urgency of a caller's medical needs was "not good enough."

Despite a large number of complaints from staff, patients and healthcare professionals about the service, SWASFT took only limited action to deal with the problems, the report found.

However, it highlighted the "calm, patient and professional manner" of frontline staff, who were "reassuring when responding to people calling in distress.”

Nationally, 95 per cent of NHS 111 calls should be answered in 60 seconds but, at one point, in the South West only 72 per cent of calls were hitting this target, inspectors said.




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