The county’s independent health and care champion Healthwatch Somerset is calling for the area’s NHS non-emergency phone line to provide better communication with the public.

Long waiting times, repetitive assessment questions and ‘robotic’ phone operatives were just some of the issues raised by members of the public when asked about Somerset’s 111 non-emergency phone service in a recent survey, carried out by the county’s independent health and care champion Healthwatch Somerset.

Despite two thirds of respondents saying they felt the 111 service did not meet their needs, 90 per cent said they felt they were treated with compassion, dignity and respect and a high proportion rated their experience as very good or good.

More than 650 people took part in the survey, which was carried out to ensure the public voice is used to help shape a new Integrated Urgent Care Service, being introduced by Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group in February 2019.

Staff and volunteers from Healthwatch Somerset visited events and community venues over the summer to capture people’s views on the 111 service. Some people said they liked the 111 service, as it provided reassurance and help in a time of need, commenting on how polite the advisors were.

Whilst other people reported being frustrated about the assessment questions, finding them irrelevant, lengthy and repetitive.

Emily Taylor, Healthwatch Somerset Manager, said: “There appears to be a lack of understanding about the relevance and importance of the assessment questions. We would recommend better communication with the public about the service and how it works.”

“People also talked to us about waiting long periods of time for a call back from a medical professional. Many told us about not knowing when they would receive a call back. Some suggested that they could have been kept updated via a text message, email or an online app system. Where people were left too long, they often called 999 or went to A&E. Again, we would suggest better communication with people who are left waiting for a call back.”

Emily continued: “People often referred to the 111 phone operatives as robotic because they were following a script. Whilst people are happy that the service exists, there was a keenness that advisors be more willing to enter into a conversation about the issues and to be more flexible around the script. Additional staff training was mentioned on numerous occasions.”

Following analysis of the survey results, Healthwatch Somerset recommends:

  • Better communication with the public about the service and how it works, as well as keeping in touch with those who are left waiting for a call back.
  • Additional staff training for operators so they can enter into a conversation with the caller and be more flexible around the script.
  • Collecting further data on high user groups and communicating with them on alternative options. (Around 85 people were regular users of the service calling between 10 and 60 times in the last three years.)
  • Providing a different phone number for health care professionals, particularly care home staff, so they can get access to other services without being taken through all the questions.

Healthwatch Somerset Manager Emily Taylor added: “We know that it is important that people know what has happened as a result of them sharing their experiences with us. We are already working with commissioners to respond to the issues raised in this report. We will be sharing this report with key partners and will be presenting our findings at the Somerset Health and Wellbeing Board and NHS Local Quality Surveillance Group.”

The report can be viewed via healthwatchsomerset.co.uk and will be sent to Healthwatch England, and a follow up meeting will be arranged with NHS Somerset CCG ahead of the launch of the Integrated Urgent Care service in February 2019.

A spokesperson for Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group said: “Somerset CCG welcomes the publication of the Healthwatch Somerset’s NHS 111 public experience report. We will be incorporating its insights and recommendations into local urgent care planning and the county’s forthcoming health and care strategy.”

“Many of the issues raised, like the length of time it might take some patients to receive a call back after initially calling NHS 111, we expect to be addressed by the new Integrated Urgent Care Service for Somerset. This will be up and running from February 2019 and will be provided by Devon Doctors Ltd.”

“NHS 111 remains the essential number to call if you become ill after your GP surgery has closed or when you need medical advice fast, but it is not a 999 emergency. The number is free to call, available day or night and is still the quickest way to get timely access to health advice you or your family may need.”