Every month, millions of people who attempt to call their GP surgery between 8am and 10am have trouble getting through because of engaged phone lines, a survey has revealed.
The research also revealed 93% of calls to surgeries that use normal landline services go unanswered because the number is busy.
By comparison, some 98% of patients contacting surgeries which use a system to handle calls are able to get through to make an appointment or speak to a GP.
These patients were also three times more likely to get test results and more than twice as likely to get hold of a doctor.
Telephone service provider Network Europe Group (NEG), which carried out the survey, is urging the government to adopt a standardised system for local surgery lines.
The Department of Health stressed local surgeries should have the freedom to provide services they feel are adequate.
A spokesman said: "The NHS white paper published earlier this summer set out plans to give everyone the right to choose the GP that best meets their needs and we are removing ineffective top-down political targets that get in the way of GPs responding to people's needs.
"Instead of the government telling GPs what patients want, we want patients to tell their GP themselves what they want and then give GPs the freedom to provide services and be accountable for the results they achieve.
"We also intend to roll out one single number 111 for all urgent care needs by 2013."
NEG compared data from the Department of Health's GP Patient Survey with more than 750 surgeries using its Surgery Line service.
Copyright © Press Association 2010
Your comments (terms and conditions apply):
"I work as a GP receptionist in a huge busy surgery and the NEG service means that patients get through to the right place, even if they are held in a queue. In the old days they would have heard an engaged tone. Of course the system is only as good as those who work it and staff shortages means that we do get complaints from patients because they do have to wait to be answered. NHS Direct is a waste of time as all they do is tell the caller to ring the GP and be seen within a set amount of time, which puts pressure on an already overloaded appointment system. Doubt the 111 service will improve on that!" – Name and address withheld
"This is a perennial problem with more than one solution. Patients calling for results can be told to call at other times of day and see their results, order prescriptions and book appointments online if the surgery opens access to their medical records. A network provider has a vested interest in promoting results of this kind. There appears to be no mention of the large numbers of patients who hate 'menu' phone systems" – Name and address withheld