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Caithness News Bulletins March 2005

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Health & Welfare NHS 24  

NHS24 Understaffed And Underperforming
SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands Rob Gibson says that the Scottish Executive review of NHS 24 will have to be extremely detailed and changes made if lives are not to be put at risk.

His comments come after news of a petition from Killin is being lodged in Parliament and Fort William GP and councillor Michael Foxley has shown very poor slow service from the NHS 24 phone lines.

'I am backing his call for a dedicated NHS 24 line for the Highlands.'

Last Thursday in oral questions Mr Gibson asked Deputy Health Minister Rona Brankin in Parliament on what prominence evidence of misdiagnosis by NHS 24 staff would be given in the Scottish Executive review.

This came after a Caithness patient alleged that after a call to NHS 24 she was diagnosed with having constipation, however 4 hours later thanks to her own initiative she was operated on for acute appendicitis in Caithness General Hospital 20 miles away.

Said Mr Gibson..' This incident is deeply worrying, and is an example of the failure and downright danger of the current NHS 24 system. It is not over the top to say that lives are being put in danger. More nursing staff and more doctors need to be employed to meet Highland needs.

He continued...'It is clear that the Scottish Executives review of NHS 24 is going to have to be far reaching and look into staffing and correct diagnosis by NHS 24.'

'The recent test carried out by vice-convenor of Highland Council Dr Michael Foxley showed that 90% of the calls to NHS 24 were not answered, is a prime an example of why there should be a dedicated phone line in the Highlands and Islands. However misdiagnoses can be as dangerous as a busy line and therefore the Scottish Executive is duty bound to deal with it urgently.'

A Highland GP and senior councillor has attacked NHS 24 after only seven out of 66 calls were answered during a test.

Highland Councillor And Local GP Michael Foxley Tested NHS 24
Michael Foxley, Highland Council vice-convener and a doctor based in Lochaber, said the health of people living in remote areas was under threat because the controversial out-of-hours telephone service was not coping with the volume of calls being made.

He is calling for a Highland-specific phone line dealing only with medical cases from the region. Over a three-week period earlier this year Dr Foxley and colleagues called the line and noted the results. A staggering 90% of their calls were unanswered.

In a 14-hour period on January 30 only four calls out of 28 were answered quickly. The majority were directed to a recorded voice message which said only very urgent cases were being dealt with.

On another day only one call from five was answered in an eight-hour period and on February 20 only two from 12 calls made over 15 hours were answered.

Dr Foxley said the implications of the problem were gravely serious and had to be resolved as soon as possible.

"NHS 24 works very well when people can get through but the problem is actually getting access," he said.  "NHS Highland chairman Garry Coutts has put a lot of work into this over the last few months telling NHS 24 that the system needs to be improved.

"What we need is a phone line dedicated to the Highlands because this is the most remote and rural area of Scotland and there are problems associated with that."

Mr Coutts said he was aware of the problem, which had been raised by the health board and a meeting was due to take place between health officials and representatives from NHS 24 later this month.

He said: "NHS 24 have been contacted and have confirmed to NHS Highland that getting the issue of access to the phone line is a priority."

He added if people were faced with life-threatening problems they should dial 999 and not contact the phone line.  The health authority wrote to Highland councillors, community councils and patient groups at the end of January seeking feedback about the service.

Last week Health Minister Andy Kerr announced an independent review of the NHS 24 system to address a number of reported problems.

First Minister Jack McConnell supported the move and said the service had to be better and more consistent.

Mr Coutts said: "The health minister has taken it up and I am confident that with the technology that exists that we will be on the right track very soon."

A spokeswoman for NHS 24 said: "Improving access is a priority for NHS 24, particularly in remote and rural areas of Scotland."

Question At Scottish Parliament
Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it has conducted a review of NHS 24. (S2O-5596)

 The Deputy Minister for Health and Community Care (Rhona Brankin): The Executive announced last week that an independent review group is being established to identify performance improvements that should be implemented by NHS 24.

* Rob Gibson: What prominence will be given to evidence of misdiagnosis by NHS 24 staff, such as was alleged by a patient in Caithness earlier this year? She was told that she was suffering from constipation, but four hours later, through her own initiative, she was operated on for acute appendicitis in a hospital 20 miles away.

* Rhona Brankin: A total of 31,000 calls are handled by NHS 24 every month. Of the calls received, 24,800-80 per cent-are answered within 30 seconds of the end of the welcome message. Around 18,000 are dealt with straight away without the need for a call-back and, of the balance, more than 90 per cent of those assessed as priority 1 calls are returned within the one-hour call-back target. That is not to say that I do not express concern at particular cases such as the one that Mr Gibson raises. I acknowledge that there seems to have been a particular problem in that case. That is exactly why we have asked for a review of NHS 24.