East Kent Hospitals Trust initiated internal major incident procedures after an ‘unprecedented number of exceptionally unwell’ patients stretched A&E services in Ashford, Margate and Canterbury. Doctors have been told to cancel non-priority activities and outpatient staff redeployed.
An NHS spokesperson told the Kent on Sunday newspaper the problem could be partly caused by patients unable to get a GP appointment. ‘It could be something to do with primary care and patients not being able to get an appointment to see their GP’, she said.
Kent LMC chair Dr Stephen Meech said blaming GP appointment booking problems was the ‘excuse trotted out time and time again’ for increased demand on A&E services, and pointed to the launch of NHS 111 as the cause.
His comments came as MPs prepared to launch an inquiry into problems with the roll-out of NHS 111 last month, which saw GPs and NHS Direct forced to step in to provide cover.
Dr Meech, a GP in Maidstone, said he was not aware of any particular difficult getting GP appointments at the moment nor any increased demand at surgeries in the area.
He suggested the problems could have been caused by the recent local introduction of NHS 111: ‘The biggest change recently locally has been NHS 111, which we know is somewhat risk averse and will tend to refer to A&E cases which if they went through to the OOH service would probably be given some advice and told to see their GP in the next day or two if things don’t improve.’
A GP member of the local CCG, Dr John Ribchester, told a public meeting the 111 service could not cope with call levels because it had too few call handlers, according to the Canterbury Times. Dr Ribchester also blamed problems with the non-emergency phone service which went live on 1 April, for the increased demand on A&E.
Dr Mark Jones, clinical chair of Canterbury and Coastal CCG, told GP NHS 111 may be partly to blame for the A&E crisis.
'NHS 111 is at a very early stage in our area and we are working closely with South East Coast Ambulance service to address any issues. As with any new service there is a period of bedding in required which is why a phased approach has been taken to introduction.'
He said at peak times there could be 80 staff on duty.
A spokeswoman for East Kent Hospitals Trust said it was not possible to pinpoint the cause of the crisis and she could not comment on ‘speculation’.
MPs are set to investigate failings of NHS 111. Stephen Dorrell, chair of the House of Commons health select committee told the Daily Telegraph he would launch an inquiry into whether the helpline was referring too many cases to emergency services.
Around half of NHS 111 services across England have been put on hold, with rollout delayed until the summer. In some regions where it has gone live, such as Manchester and Birmingham, GPs and NHS Direct have had to step in to provide cover.
GPC chairman Dr Laurence Buckman has said NHS 111 should be delayed indefinitely until local organisations were ready to implement it.