NHS 111 call handlers will triage patient calls to GP practices in a pilot project that is under development in London.
Under the plans, which are being worked on by the London Ambulance Service (LAS) and GP practices covering 1.5 million patients in the capital, patients would be automatically diverted to NHS 111 during busy times of the day.
Paramedics, as trained healthcare professionals, could also help support 111 call handlers by dealing with simple medical concerns directly over the phone, The Times reported.
LAS chief executive Daniel Elkeles told the newspaper that the aim of the pilot is to increase patient access to their GP practice while also reducing the number of people calling an ambulance or going to A&E because they cannot reach their GP.
In April, the Labour Party claimed that 18% of patients attending A&E did so because they were not able to get a GP appointment last year, amounting to 4.5 million attendances.
Mr Elkeles said: ‘We need to get primary care to work again and for patients to think they’re getting satisfaction with it.
‘I think the 111 providers could refocus some of what we think is our core business to help make that happen. It could be game-changing.’
He said the LAS has a ’24/7 telephony infrastructure’ that they would like to use to ‘support primary care’ while also ensuring that the workload coming into 999 is ‘genuinely really sick people’.
Mr Elkeles said this new pilot could help to end the ‘8am rush’ as patients would still feel as though they were contacting their GP practice rather than ringing 111.
He said: ‘We can use the GP IT system. We could go through the questions that the GP would have asked or the receptionist would have asked or you could have done digitally yourself and then we could navigate the patient to the right place.
‘You’d be freeing up loads of time in primary care for the GPs to see the patients who really need them, because we’ve taken away a chunk of the work.’
Dr Simon Abrams, a GP in Liverpool and chair of Urgent Health UK, said that ‘as an overflow service’ the idea is not ‘unreasonable’, and that the ‘111 service has a level of sophistication that would enable it to deal with some of those issues’.
However, he said the main issue to address in primary care is under-staffing and the lack of investment.
He said: ‘I think it’s unfortunate that GP practices just haven’t got the resources to provide the appointments that are needed by are population, which is being caused by the under-recruitment of general practitioners and just a shortfall of clinicians in practices to enable them to do deal with the problems.
‘I think the solution lies in better investment in primary care, and there has been a significant under-investment of time, money and resource into general practice in the last few years.’
He also said that while 111 has the ‘adequate’ technology, it cannot necessarily offer the personalised approach and continuity of care that primary care offers.
This funding was aimed at implementing modern telephony systems so ‘patients never get engaged tones’, while the recovery plan also announced a major expansion of the receptionist role to become expert ‘care navigators’.
And under the updated contract, imposed this year, GP practices must offer patients an assessment or signpost them to an appropriate service on first contact.