NHS doctor
Statistics on NHS 111 found the number of calls referred to GP services from the 111 helpline rose by 186% (Reuters)

The number of people being referred to already overstretched GPs after calling the non-emergency 111 number is putting a strain on the NHS, doctors have warned.

Analysis by the British Medical Association (BMA) showed the number of calls directed to GP services has gone up by 186%, and to A&E by 192% - with some patients being advised to visit their doctor with colds and sore thumbs.

Separate figures show there had also been a drop in the number "self-care" advice given to people who dial 111 rather than being referred to NHS services.

Dr Charlotte Jones, BMA's GP lead on NHS 111, said the BMA has previously spoke about their concerns that call handlers are not giving patients who dial the number "appropriate" advice.

She added: "Although there have been some improvements in capacity since its disastrous early introduction, this analysis of referrals over the past two years demonstrate that there has been a huge increase in the number of people put through to key parts of the NHS such as A&E and general practice.

"There is no doubt that if a patient needs any form of medical care they should be referred through to an appropriate doctor or nurse, but there are serious doubts as to whether this huge increase in workload is clinically necessary.

"Anecdotally, GPs have reported to the BMA that patients have been referred to them with colds, sore thumbs or other conditions that could have been treated safely by sensible advice over the phone, advising a patient on how to self-care, such as picking up medication from a local pharmacist."

NHS 111 was rolled out in March 2013 to replace the old NHS Direct service, which dealt with around 4.4 million calls a year. By comparison, the numbers of calls handled by NHS 111 has gone up every year and now responds to more than 15.4 million calls.

The number was also condemned as being partly responsible for the 'Winter crisis' and increase in major incidents being declared at hospitals.

An NHS England spokesperson said: "What the statistics clearly show is that there is a massive demand from the public for the 111 service.

"To date it has coped impressively with this pressure with the proportion of referrals to GPs and emergency services remaining steady despite the surge in demand.

"Given this popularity, however, we are continuing to look at ways to make the service even more robust including asking GPs to help support call centres and provide patients with the ability to get high quality medical advice as quickly as possible."