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GP co-ops call foul as NHS Direct fails to cut call time

NHS Direct has managed to shave only half a minute off its average call time over the last two years despite introducing 'more efficient' clinical decision software, latest Government figures show.

Average NHS Direct call length for December 2002 stood at 11.5 minutes compared with 12 minutes in October 2000. The time increased to more than 14 minutes in April last year.

Ministers had promised call times would be slashed to just six minutes when it introduced new clinical support software worth £22 million in 2000.

It claimed trials of the much-praised Axa Assistance software had delivered average call lengths of just 6.5 minutes and had produced nurse advice that was 'more accurate and consistent'.

Call times are measured from answering the phone to nurse 'wrap-up' and cover taking patient details, nurse triage and referral. The figures are the latest blow to Government ambitions for the troubled 24-hour nurse helpline.

Dr Prasad Rao, vice-chair of the National Association of GP Co-operatives, accused the Government of misleading them over the helpline's call-handling capacity.

Failure to improve performance had jeopardised Government plans to integrate all GP out-of-hours services with the helpline by the end of 2004, he said.

'It shows how far the Government has got to go before it can achieve what it promised to do. I am very disappointed to hear the new software has not made much difference,' added Dr Rao.

The Government's much-vaunted 'exemplar' programme which pilots co-op links with NHS Direct has been dogged by problems since its launch in November 2001.

A Commission for Health Improvement report on NHS Direct uncovered further problems last week.

Its clinical governance review of North West Coast NHS Direct, which covers three exemplar sites, found a significant deterioration in the service over the last year due to a sharp increase in calls.

Abandoned calls had increased and calls had not been passed on to nurses quickly enough, inspectors said.

A Department of Health spokesman said the Government's target was an average call length of 8.5 minutes by 2005.

It said call length had fallen since Axa was introduced.

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