A Commons inquiry has criticised poor management of GP out of hours services, as it emerged that four in ten health service users in the North East do not know how to contact a GP outside usual working hours.
NHS England, the national body overseeing health services, was urged to set targets for increasing public awareness of the service, so that patients know how to receive help outside office hours.
And MPs warned that lack of information was driving people to visit hospital accident and emergency departments unnecessarily - putting extra strain on hospitals.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee warned: “Patients’ experience of and satisfaction with the out-of-hours services varies significantly and unacceptably across the country”.
Nationwide the proportion of people in each local area who rated their experience of out-of-hours services as “very good” or “fairly good” ranged from 49% to 86%.
In the Cumbria, Northumbria and Tyne and Wear area, the figure was 69% and in the Durham, Darlington and Tees area the figure was 68%.
The figures come from a regular survey of NHS users conducted by the health service.
The same survey found that in both areas, 59% of users said they knew how to access out-of-hours services, while 41% said they did not.
This is slightly better than the national figure, as across England only 56% NHS users know how to access out-of-hours GP services.
Out-of-hours services are supposed to be available from 6.30pm to 8am on weekdays and all day at weekends and on bank holidays.
However, only one in ten GP surgeries provide services during this time, and patients are usually directed to other services.
In some cases, this will mean services paid for by the NHS but provided by a private health company such as Care UK.
The issue of out-of-hours care has become a hot political topic, with David Cameron promising that a future Conservative government would encourages GPs to open for up to 12 hours every day of the week by 2020.
Meanwhile, Labour is promising to introduce a “GP guarantee” giving all NHS patients contacting their surgery the right to consult a doctor or a nurse at their local GP surgery on the same day.
But MPs warned that the NHS was currently failing to manage out-of-hours services effectively because it did not know why services in some areas appeared to be better than others.
The Committee’s report also warned: “Too many people are unaware of the different urgent care options and of how to contact them, meaning they may not receive care in the most appropriate setting.
“While increasing awareness does not necessarily lead people to change their behaviour, NHS England acknowledged that it had a responsibility to improve public awareness of urgent care services so that NHS resources are used more efficiently.”
As well as GP services, there was a lack of awareness of the “111” non-emergency phone number.