A third of hospitals are failing to answer incoming calls within 20 seconds and there are wide variations across England, research has found.
Fifty hospitals took more than a minute on average to answer calls made to switchboards while one hospital in Bristol took more than 18 minutes to answer one call.
Experts called for a nationwide target for answering such calls, which they said could be about emergencies or major incidents.
For the study, researchers made calls to the switchboards of 219 acute trusts with A&E departments.
They set a target of 20 seconds, in line with some organisations outside the NHS, including police forces, councils and universities.
The authors made a total of three calls on three specific week days and at three specific times.
All hospital switchboards were telephoned from a private (non-hospital) line with the total number of calls being 657.
Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM), the authors said: “We found a vast discrepancy in actual answering times and the consistency of answering times throughout hospitals.
“The average answering time was 45 seconds. The best performing switchboard was University Hospital of North Durham and the worst Bristol Royal Infirmary.
“Selly Oak hospital also performed poorly, being not only near the bottom of the league table, but also remarkably consistent in its slow answering times.”
Copyright PA Business 2008