CONCERN has been raised that NHS 111 helplines are needlessly referring people to A&E departments.

The Dorset service sent 3,862 people to A&E in June 2018, 24 per cent of all callers, according to figures from NHS England.

This is up from 16 per cent in June 2014, the year the helpline was introduced, when 2,704 patients were referred to casualty.

Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: “There is broad recognition that a large number of people calling NHS 111 are being directed to A&E and NHS England have stepped up the amount of clinical input available to those seeking help through this route to try and tackle this.

“In looking at the impact of making more clinicians available in NHS 111 call centres, we found that children and young people who were reviewed by a GP were less likely to go on to A&E than other patients.

“However, the lower levels of attendances were focussed on minor treatment units, with little evidence that review by a GP reduced attendances at major A&E departments, which is where most of the pressure is.”

NHS 111 is a 24-hour helpline for patients who need medical help but do not need to call 999, replacing NHS Direct and GP out-of-hours services.

NHS Direct employed nurses and other clinical staff. Now, most calls are dealt with by staff with no clinical background working to a set script, although around a fifth are referred to nurses or paramedics.

The service has become less popular in the past four years.

Dorset handled 15,904 calls in June 2018, down from 17,415 in 2014.

It referred 61 per cent of these to primary care, such as GP surgeries, pharmacies and dentists. About four per cent of them were advised to rest at home.

The service is commissioned by local clinical commissioning groups, which make spending decisions for local health services.

The helplines are run by ambulance trusts, GP surgeries and private healthcare companies.

The Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, last year released a report warning about the increasing proportion of people being sent to A&E.

The report said: “The decision to scrap NHS Direct and replace it with the NHS 111 was strongly criticised by health professionals, and today we have learned that NHS 111 is sending more callers, and a higher proportion, to A&E than in previous years, with great variations in performance across different regions."