• Islington Healthwatch chief executive waited over an hour for call to DHL to be answered before giving up
  • Five-year PTS contract started in September
  • Other complaints about service include patients not being able to be accompanied by carers and late pick ups

A logistics company awarded a patient transport contract has been heavily criticised after a local Healthwatch chief executive spent more than an hour waiting for them to answer the phone.

Emma Whitby, Islington Healthwatch chief executive, told HSJ she had tried to call the DHL booking service for non-emergency patient transport in north central London after receiving complaints from patients unable to get through. After an hour and a quarter, she hung up.

She said the service since the five-year PTS contract started in September had “not been acceptable” and criticised commissioners for not involving patients sufficiently in the commissioning of the service.

DHL now provides both the call centre to book non-emergency journeys and the staff and vehicles to transport patients across five clinical commissioning groups — Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Islington and Haringey — to the Whittington Hospital, North Middlesex University Hospital, the Royal Free London, and Moorfields Hospital.

Since the new contract started, there have been a number of complaints, mainly around the time taken to answer calls but also some where elderly patients were not able to be accompanied by a family carer and late pick ups of patients and missed appointments.

In one case, a 93-year-old woman being taken to hospital with sight issues was told she could not be accompanied by a carer, said Ms Whitby.

Ms Whitby was also critical of how the contract is managed, saying it was difficult to navigate through the system to find out who was responsible. While the CCGs, led by Barnet CCG, have responsibility for commissioning the service, they do so through contracts with the hospital trusts who then have their own contracts with DHL.

Meanwhile, the Royal Free London Foundation Trust oversees the call centre run by DHL which serves all four trusts.

“It’s not very clear to us who holds responsibility for the issues patients are facing,” she said. “I get that integration can be a wonderful thing but actually this sort of integration means that no one is accountable.”

Both the Royal Free and DHL said it is now meeting the three-minute target for answering calls, despite Royal Free board papers from this week saying it was not meeting it.

A DHL Supply Chain spokesperson said: “We are aware that in the early days of the contract some patients had to wait longer than expected for a trained agent to answer the call. However, the assessment centre is now operating normally and patient calls are being answered in under three minutes, in line with our agreed performance metrics.”

The Royal Free said: “During the early days of the contract, some patients were waiting longer than we would like for a trained agent to answer their call. More staff have now been employed and calls are being answered within the three-minutes, which is in line with our contractual arrangements.

“Since additional staff were employed at the call centre, the waiting time has dropped from an average of 18 minutes 55 seconds to 1 minute 37 seconds (recorded 27 November 2019).”

In a statement, Barnet CCG said: “We are sorry to hear that some patients have been experiencing difficulties with the new service. Alongside our partners, we are working hard to address any complaints which have been received.

“As with any new commissioned service, we will continually review the provision, and make sure the providers are working together to ensure any issues are addressed in a timely manner and a high quality service is being provided for our patients.

“Access to patient transport is based on medical need and the eligibility criteria used (which did not change as a result of the change of provider) is in line with the Department of Health and Social Care’s guidelines.” It did not release the company’s performance against key performance indicators, despite an HSJ request.


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