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Government study backs GPs' criticism of NHS 24's IT failings

A Government-commissioned evaluation of NHS 24 has backed GP criticisms that the nurse helpline is plagued by IT problems and is failing to integrate with existing out-of-hours services.

The report commissioned by the Scottish Executive also finds the £30 million service has failed to cut the number of ambulance calls and visits to A&E departments.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen said the executive had underestimated how difficult it would be to integrate NHS 24 – the Scottish equivalent of NHS Direct – with GP co-ops and other services.

But they found patients were more satisfied with out-of-hours care since NHS 24 was launched in 2002.

The interim report follows criticisms from GPs in Gram-pian, the first area to pilot the service, who complained NHS 24 was increasing their workload and offering inappropriate triage.

Author David Heaney, senior research fellow at the Highland and Islands Research Institute at the university, said the service had 'undermined co-op's sense of ownership' of out-of-hours care. 'What has become clear is that setting this up has been a far bigger task than was predicted,' he said.

He added that NHS 24 was working to rectify the problems raised by the research and it was too early to judge whether it would be a success.

Dr Barbara West, Glasgow LMC medical secretary, said IT problems which meant information from helpline staff was not forwarded on to GPs could put patients' lives at risk.

'Where it is really hazard-ous is when NHS 24 decides a home visit is required, but if we don't get that information it doesn't get done,' she said.

Despite GPs' concerns, the research found 62 per cent of patients were 'very satisfied' with NHS 24's service.

Dr Chris Stewart, NHS 24 deputy medical director, admitted there had been 'early teething problems' but said these had been addressed.

He added that much of the criticism referring to IT problems related to incidents during January 2003 which had been resolved.

NHS 24 covers half of the population of Scotland but is set to be rolled out across the country by the end of the year.

By Joe Lepper

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