The call centre set up to deal with Choose and Book appointments is beginning to receive a small number of calls but is calling on GPs to publicise its services more widely.

Dilip Chakrabarti, national director of Booking and Choice at NHS Direct, said the Choose and Book Appointments Line (CABAL) is now receiving 120 calls a month.

Chakrabarti said that the call numbers were up from a baseline of zero for the first few months after its launch in July 2004 and less than 20 in April 2005.

“We are still tiny,” he told EHI Primary Care.

The call centre employs nine people working shifts, taking calls and developing the service.

Chakrabarti said the assumption in the health department business plan was that CABAL is eventually expected to handle 85 per cent of all Choose and Book appointments with call volumes of more than 500,000 a month.

There are currently 14 million new appointments a year in the NHS. CABAL is expected to handle 10 million of these as well as support patients who want to track or change their appointment.

According to planning assumptions, the other four million bookings will be made either at GP surgeries or by patients using the web-based service alone.

“I think the assumption is rather that GPs will not want to be making appointments themselves,” said Chakrabarti.

Analysis of the calls made to CABAL so far shows that most people ring in working hours, Monday to Friday. This is despite the fact that the centre is open 7am to 10pm, 365 days a year. Calls peak in the morning and again just after lunch.

Chakrabarti said: “Our view is that patients are not fully aware that the service is open as much as it is. We would like them presented with better information in the GP surgery.”

Of those calling, most want a new appointment.

However, around a quarter wanted to change an existing appointment, said Chakrabarti. "While the numbers are so small it is difficult to draw conclusions but it does seem that people are taking advantage of the new system’s flexibility"’

Passwords had been an issue earlier in the year, he said, with 23 patients unable to make an appointment in May because they had not been issued with one.

By June this had halved to 12.

“The issue is being solved as GPs know how to use the system better,” said Chakrabarti. “From September the software will auto generate passwords so we will not have this issue anymore.”

The next steps will include looking at what information CABAL operators should give patients and at the length of call.

“Call length is a major cost driver,” he said. “We are currently dealing with some calls in less than two minutes. We expect this to change as people really face up to four or five choices but at the moment it is hypothetical.”

CABAL is meeting all its targets, answering 99.5 per cent of calls within 30 seconds, and sending out letters to all callers within two days. The complaint level is below 0.1 per cent with no complaints in May.

In the meantime the British Medical Association’s General Practitioner Committee remains concerned about the workload implications of Choose and Book for practices and is in talks with the Department of Health (DH) on the issue.

Earlier this year the department announced an incentive scheme to help PCTs meet Choose and Book targets. The first of those incentive payments, equivalent to £6,000 per practice, will be payable to PCTs who have registered 30 per cent of GPs for smartcards, agreed commissioning rules and set up their directory of services by July 15.

A DH spokesman told EHI Primary Care that PCTs were currently in the process of sending completed pro-formas to SHA directors of performance to confirm and return to the department by the 29 July deadline.

He added: “We have advised that returns may be subject to audit. Payment will be made via SHAs as soon as practically possible.”