Almost 150,000 calls to NHS 24 were abandoned before an operator responded in the first six months of 2023, figures released by the Scottish Conservatives show.
The data, obtained by the party through freedom of information requests, reveals one caller waited more than two hours and 45 minutes to speak to an operator about their health concern, while another waited longer than two hours and 12 seconds in April.
Of the 147,931 abandoned calls, January was the most impacted month, with 34,594 calls halted before being answered.
The average caller had to wait just under 13 minutes to reach an operator on the helpline, but in January the average wait was 19 minutes and 51 seconds.
The helpline is there for people to access medical advice when GP surgeries are closed or overstretched, with the Scottish Government urging people to take advantage of NHS 24 to alleviate pressure on emergency departments.
But Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said people will be pushed back into calling their GP or attending A&E due to the significant waiting times for NHS 24.
He said: “The astonishing scale of abandoned NHS 24 calls is a symptom of the SNP’s chronic mismanagement of Scotland’s NHS.
“Scots should not be forced to endure ridiculous wait times to speak to an operator about their health concerns.
“The average wait time of almost 13 minutes is simply not good enough – and it beggars belief that someone actually waited nigh on three hours to have their call answered.
“NHS 24 has a vital role to play in reducing the pressure on GP surgeries and our A&E departments. That’s the theory – but if callers face unacceptable waits, they are likely to give up and book a GP appointment or attend hospital instead.
“During their 16 years in power, the SNP have run our NHS into the ground, creating more hurdles for Scots to jump over in order to access vital healthcare.
“Wait times for A&E, operations and appointments have soared due to ministers’ dire workforce planning, and now even a call to NHS 24 is a challenge.
“Scots deserve a health service that is easy to access and doesn’t come with lengthy wait times attached – one that is modern, efficient and local.”
A spokesperson for NHS 24 responded: “As with the rest of the NHS in Scotland, NHS 24 experienced significant demand for its services during the early months of 2023 due to winter pressures.
“NHS 24’s 111-service also experiences high demand during public holidays, such as Easter and the May bank holidays. During these temporary increases in demand the public may, at times, experience a longer wait time for their call to be answered.
“When calling 111 people hear a message which helps them find the right care, in the right place quickly and easily. This means some callers choose to end their call to 111 such as, for example, in the case of an emergency, when callers are advised to dial 999.
“NHS 24 also advises people that they may be able to get help from other sources of care and advice, such as their local pharmacy, or via our symptom checkers on NHSinform.scot or the NHS 24 Online app.
“NHS 24 is constantly improving its services and continues to recruit extra frontline staff to answer every call as quickly as possible, and to continue to provide safe and effective care to patients across Scotland 24/7.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson added: “NHS 24 continues to work hard to ensure calls to its 111 service are answered as quickly and safely as possible.
“The Scottish Government increased NHS 24’s funding last year by over £20 million for additional recruitment and the addition of a new call centres in Dundee and Glasgow. We will continue to invest in the service as it continues to expand both its services and workforce.
“For context, NHS England’s equivalent 111 service dropped almost 3.7 million calls last year, which is per head of population around 19% higher in England than the rate identified for Scotland in this release.
“In addition the average NHS 111 waiting time in England last year was 25 minutes – nearly double the length identified in this release for Scotland.”