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The Scottish Executive has launched an investigation into the performance of NHS 24 after a series of complaints from GPs and patients.

GPs claim patients are being put at risk because the £36 million helpline is understaffed and cannot cope during busy periods.

Patients have been subjected to five-hour-plus waits just to speak to a nurse, with resulting hold-ups in GP out-of-hours home visits.

NHS 24 ­ the equivalent of NHS Direct in England and Wales ­ has admitted it has 25 per cent fewer staff than it needs.

Dr Patrick Trust, a GP in Alexandria, Dunbartonshire, said NHS 24 was 'failing

completely' to provide a good service.

He added: 'NHS 24 is in theory a great idea. But in practice at busy times it fails completely. At busy weekends and public holidays it's useless. It needs rethinking.'

Problems with the service have increased since the start of the year after the final date for GPs to opt out of out-of-hours passed.

Dr Dean Marshall, secretary of Lothian LMC, said GPs working out-of-hours shifts were facing a considerable increase in work because of the problems with NHS 24.

'The staffing problems have caused a huge rise in response times and the number of call-backs,' he said.

'They have passed some of that work back to local areas for triage.'

Dr John Rankin, secretary of Forth Valley LMC, said there was 'no question' that NHS 24 was needed to provide out-of-hours triage, but the service had to take on more staff.

He said the policy of centralising services in just three call centres had led to recruitment problems. 'If people can't get through where will they go? A&E? It would be good if we could think outside the box and get GPs into A&E.'

Announcing the review, Scottish health minister Andy Kerr said public concerns about NHS 24 had to be addressed.

Christine Lenihan, chair of NHS 24, said: 'With the changes in the new GMS contract in place for a matter of only weeks, this is an opportune time to carry out the

review.'

By Rob Finch

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