At least 22 "potentially serious" incidents - three involving deaths - have been recorded in connection with the new NHS 111 advice line, it has been reported.
Two deaths are being investigated in the East Midlands, and one in the West Midlands, while a further 19 possible incidents have also been recorded, health magazine Pulse said. NHS England will now carry out a review into the "unacceptable" performance of some local providers of the urgent care line, which launched just weeks ago.
The investigation comes with hospital emergency departments bracing themselves for a busy bank holiday weekend, as doctors voiced concern about whether the new advice line could cope. Patients have been complaining about calls going unanswered and poor advice being given, especially at weekends, which has led to hospitals being inundated with patients who could be treated elsewhere.
The deaths being looked into include a 47-year old who died from a suspected overdose after relatives contacted NHS 111 requesting mental health assistance, and an 83-year-old who died after calling the line about severe abdominal pain, Pulse reported.
A spokesman from Derbyshire Health United - which covers NHS 111 in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire - said it was investigating the two deaths but that so far it believes the system and processes that were followed would have been "exactly as expected". NHS Direct - which covers eight NHS 111 areas - said it is investigating the unexpected death of a patient who called the advice line and was referred to a GP out-of-hours service in the West Midlands, Pulse reported.
NHS England's board members voted to set up a review into the service. "The performance standards which have been introduced for NHS 111 represent a gold standard which the majority of NHS 111 services in England are now meeting, though in some areas performance is still unacceptable, especially at weekends", a spokesman said.
''Some local providers of NHS 111 have not provided the prompt, reliable service the public need and want. NHS England's board is determined to ensure that the public have access to a gold standard NHS 111 service wherever they live in England. The NHS 111 service was introduced to deal with public concern and frustration in accessing NHS care, especially at weekends and out of hours."
Dr Taj Hassaan, vice president of the College of Emergency Medicine, who works in Leeds, told the Daily Mail: 'We're worried that this is the first bank holiday following the launch of 111. At a time where 111 in parts of the country is fragile, we need to plan as well as we can."
Calls to NHS 111 from landlines and mobile phones are free, and the service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A Department of Health spokesman said: ''We know that there is pressure on urgent care services and this isn't just about A&E, it's also about how the NHS works as a whole, and how it works with other areas such as social care. We are in discussions with NHS England and others to see how best to get long-term solutions to a long-term problem."
An NHS England spokesman said: "The safety of patients must be our paramount concern and NHS England will keep a careful eye on the situation to ensure NHS 111 provides not only a good service for the public but one which is also safe."