NHS 24 will offer a new triage service designed to offer patients an alternative to visiting their GP practice or A&E and take pressure of hard-pressed NHS services this winter, the Scottish Government has announced.
Call handlers have been specially trained to offer advice to patients as an alternative to them attending GP practices, out-of-hours services or A&E departments. It will also offer access to physiotherapy by phone.
The measure forms part of its £500m three-year emergency care plan and comes alongside £9m of the fund being released to be shared by Scottish health boards for A&E winter planning.
The Scottish Government said health boards would be using this money to recruit additional staff, including additional A&E consultants, and to introduce new ‘innovative measures’ to improve A&E services.
In one example, NHS Grampian has set up a local helpline with an A&E consultant available 24 hours a day which GPs can call to receive advice on whether they need to send a patient to A&E. Meanwhile, NHS Forth Valley are introducing a Frailty Unit, which will offer new integrated assessment pathways for frail elderly patients.
Scottish health minister Alex Neil said: ‘We know that our health service can face added pressure in the winter months and NHS boards have to be ready to manage potential increases in demand. Last winter saw increased pressures including an early start to the norovirus season, an increase in respiratory illnesses, and a rise in the number of people attending A&E in the peak of winter.
‘We recognise that there are areas where we need to improve. That is why this year we are focusing on improving emergency care all year round. This will ensure we have the most appropriate systems in place to cope with ageing population and the pressures that winter brings.’
But the BMA in Scotland warned that investing £9 million for winter planning was ‘not enough’, and criticised the Scottish Government’s lack of focus on GPs as a solution to the problem.
Dr Charles Saunders, deputy chairman of the BMA in Scotland, said: ‘While we welcome today’s announcement of £9m for winter planning this year it is simply not enough. Divided amongst 14 health boards, the resource available locally will not be sufficient to make a significant difference. Creating consultant posts is a welcome measure, but if there are no doctors to fill these positions, it is simply an empty promise.
‘The intention to improve the way that unscheduled care is provided year-round, is a sensible one, although it is deeply concerning that today’s announcement makes no mention of primary care services. It is GPs and community based staff who work with patients in their homes to try to minimise the need for avoidable and unplanned hospital admissions.’
‘This is a sticking plaster that will do little to stem the tide of demand that a harsh winter could create.’