Ofcom has just launched a consultation about a new non-emergency number. This consultation will clear the way for the Department of Health to introduce a new single memorable phone number – 111 – to make it easier for patients to access non-emergency healthcare in their local area. It will be added to to the present ‘three number’ numbers – 999, 112 and 101 – and also in the longer term may well replace the current number for NHS Direct which you will all have at your fingertips (no? that is part of the rationale – over three-quarters of people asked could not remember 0845 4647 and it would interesting to know how many of us know what 101 is for). There is another EU proposal floating around for 116117 to do much the same sort of job giving the same sort of option as 999 and 112.
Need to take into account the user
What does “non emergency urgent care” mean is the real question and who will be on the other end of the 111 number? How is the frantic parent faced with a febrile child who seems to have had a seizure, to take a real example, supposed to decide between 999 or 111? These things are well intentioned but need to take enough account of the psychology of the user and the emotionally charged settings in which they are likely to have to access the new service. The analogy is trying to persuade people not to go to A&E but to their GP practice for urgent care. Leave aside the access issues that many practices still have, the real deciding factor is something else: most A&E attenders have decided that they need an X-ray or some other diagnostic test and they know they won’t get it quickly at their local surgery even if it is open. The fact that most of them don’t need an x-ray and can be treated in urgent primary care is completely lost in this situation. The Darzi polyclinics are trying to address this, but it is a long hard slog to change public perceptions of what they or one of their children need when they feel it is an emergency – and so it will be for 111 we suspect.
The Department of Health will be piloting the idea and will make its mind up in 2010. In the meantime if you want to respond to the OFCOM consultation, you have until 20th August 2009.