The ‘Phone First’ service will ensure patients can get direct access to the right care, avoid busy Emergency Departments and stay safe.

Welcoming the pilot, Health Minister Robin Swann said that changes to urgent and emergency care are vital at this critical time for our health and care service.

 He said: “Prior to Covid-19, there was clear evidence that our urgent and emergency care services were under increasing pressure.  Unfortunately in recent weeks we have witnessed people facing long waits to be seen in overcrowded EDs.

“The impact of Covid-19, and the focus on infection prevention and social distancing, has driven home the urgent need for change.  We need to protect our patients and staff.  We cannot allow our EDs or hospitals to continue to see this level of crowding in future.

“Phone First’ is one of a series of actions we will be taking to protect patients and services over coming weeks and months. Our aim is to roll ‘Phone First’ out to other areas across Northern Ireland, and this pilot will help us learn how to do that safely and in a way that benefits our patients and staff.”

The Causeway Hospital ED in Coleraine launched ‘Phone First’ from 10am yesterday and operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The ‘Phone First’ number to ring is 0300 123 1 123

The ‘Phone First’ text relay number is 18001 0300 123 1 123

The service is designed for patients including children who are feeling unwell and considering travelling to Causeway Hospital ED with an injury or illness which requires urgent treatment but is not immediately life threatening.

It is also envisaged that the service will be introduced at Craigavon Area and Daisy Hill Hospitals’ EDs in the coming weeks.

For all emergencies that are life threatening always call 999 immediately. This can include: Stroke, heart attack, loss of consciousness, breathing difficulties, severe bleeding or major trauma.

It is important to note that Emergency Departments will always be a safe place for patients, and if they attend an ED without ringing first, they will not be turned away.  If their condition is not life threatening they may have to wait longer or be signposted to another service.

Patients who Phone First will be directed to the appropriate service for their needs. Those who are directed to attend ED will be assessed and prioritised based on their condition.

Head of General Medical Services at the Health and Social Care Board, Dr Margaret O’Brien explained how the new service would work:

“The ‘Phone First’ service aims to keep our EDs for emergencies, whilst ensuring rapid access, assessment and treatment on a 24/7 basis for patients who need urgent care. 

“When you call the ‘Phone First’ service for Causeway Hospital ED, you will be directed to a health care professional who will clinically assess your condition or the person you are phoning on behalf of.

“They will then make arrangements for you to access to the most appropriate service to your needs. 

“This may mean offering you an appointment at the Causeway ED, organising further investigations or redirecting you to your local GP, GP Out of Hours or nearest Minor Injuries Unit.”

Dr Fergal Dunn, a consultant in Emergency Medicine at Causeway ED added:

“The introduction of the Phone First service will improve patient safety in terms of preventing overcrowding and reducing long waits in our EDs. It will also help reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection and transmission.

“We need your help at this extremely difficult time and I encourage patients to please ‘Phone First’ if your condition is not life threatening. But remember, if it is an emergency, if the situation is critical or life threatening then ring 999 immediately.”