NHS 111 will remain integral to NHS England’s plans to improve urgent and emergency care, despite criticism from GPs.

Speaking at the NHS 111 Focus on Futures event in Manchester last week, Professor Jonathan Benger, national clinical director for urgent care for NHS England, said that NHS 111 is “central to the vision” for how to improve the management of urgent care outside hospitals.

However, GPs at the British Medical Association’s Local Medical Committees conference last month argued that the service has led to an increase in referrals to A&E and should be scrapped.

Benger conceded that NHS 111 needs to improve, especially with regards to its public perception.

“In some respects the problems that we have in A&E departments have been driven by the fact that A&E does meet a patient’s needs. They are always open and they solve a problem.”

“If NHS 111 had that reputation among the public, much of that need could be addressed outside the hospital setting.”

He detailed plans to evolve the system, as outlined in the Sir Bruce Keogh’s Urgent and Emergency Care Review.

These include the development of commissioning standards and the ability for call handlers to directly book an appointment with an urgent or emergency care service.

Benger added that it is crucial to improve the way relevant patient information is shared across the system and that NHS England should look at the type of contracts it has in place, with a greater focus on networked and cooperative behaviours.

NHS England’s director of digital technology Beverly Bryant said the service must decide now what it wants to look like in the next few years.

“The reason that now is important is because we have a new government and they will be here for the next five years. All the money that gets allocated from government towards initiatives will all happen between now and September through the comprehensive spending review.

“So although we do not know exactly what’s going to happen over the next five years we need to signal our vision and our intent so we can get the money we need to make it happen.”

Key to this will be the closer integration of online service NHS Choices and NHS 111, under the banner of NHS.UK, as outlined in the Personalised Health and Care Framework 2020.

Bryant added that a number of ideas are already being tested with investment from the Prime Minister’s Challenge Fund, such as greater use of webcams and email, while she intends to “push hard to get the government to pay for free wifi across care settings”.

She also mentioned the possibility of NHS 111 workers having the ability to access and update patient records.

“You are flying blind in 111 centres not being able to have that access. But waht if you want to be able to update it? Is that okay? Will the GP be happy with that? Those are the questions we need answered.”

One element of the future of NHS 111 is an online version developed in collaboration with technology consultancy Valtech that aims to complement the phone service.

The online tool is currently in alpha testing at Sandwell and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group, with plans for beta testing in December of this year.