The government is reviewing the “concept” of the controversial NHS 111 service, just months after the chaotic official launch of the new system, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has told HSJ.

Mr Hunt questioned whether the urgent care service currently made “it as easy as it needs to be” for patients to speak to clinicians.

The phone triage system – which is intended to ease pressure on emergency services – connects callers with non-clinical call handlers.

Rollout of NHS 111 began in 2012, and the new number was launched nationally in April 2013. However, the launch was beset with problems, leading NHS England interim deputy chief executive Dame Barbara Hakin to admit patients had been “let down” by the “unacceptable” failure of some NHS 111 services.

The role of NHS 111 is now being examined as part of the government’s review of urgent and emergency care, led by NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh.

Mr Hunt told HSJ the government would “look at whether we have got [NHS 111] right as a concept, not just in terms of the operational side of it.”

The health secretary continued: “People want access to healthcare 24/7 and they will take the easiest route – so one of the questions I think we need to ask of 111 is ‘do we make it as easy as it needs to be to talk to a clinician quickly if you’ve got something that’s worrying you?’

“Because obviously if we don’t make it easy enough – then [patients are] not going to do nothing, they’re going to go to an A&E department.”

Mr Hunt said Sir Bruce’s review would play a very important role in convincing the public to back radical changes to hospital emergency departments.

“If you want to make big service change then you have to give the public confidence that if they need to get in front of a doctor in an emergency, out of hours, they are going to be able to carrying on doing so,” he said. “And I don’t think the structures, the way we have approached reconfiguration, [have] succeeded in doing that – and we have to find a better way.

“When we get that [the Keogh review] completed, we’ll be in a much better position to the carry the public with us in changes I’ve always accepted it would be important to make.”

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