Tuesday, February 2, 1999 Published at 16:57 GMT
Nurse advice line extended
Health Secretary Frank Dobson claims NHS Direct is a success
A 24-hour nurses helpline is to be extended to cover 60% of England in time for the millennium celebrations.
However, he said the scheme had been such an unqualified success that its implementation had been brought forward. It is planned that the scheme will cover the entire country by the end of the year 2000.
Mr Dobson said: "In view of its growing success and my concern to help the NHS cope with the special problems it is likely to encounter over the millennium period at the turn of the year cover I have decided that this programme should be brought forward."
The NHS Direct scheme was launched last year in three areas - Newcastle, Preston and Milton Keynes.The aim was to relieve pressure on hard-pressed GP and accident and emergency services.
Last summer, the government decided to extend the project to cover 40% of the country. Those schemes - which will cover 20 million people - are all due to go live before April 1.
NHS Direct provides instant access to expert nurse advice at the end of a telephone 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
Patients are given advice on how best to treat themselves, or directed to whichever part of the NHS is deemed appropriate if they need medical help.
The original pilots have proved particularly popular among elderly people and families with young children.
Popular with patients
Mr Dobson told the Commons that up to December 1998, the service had handled more than 60,000 calls. He said 97% of callers had rated the service as satisfactory, and found it prompt, friendly and professional.
The Health Secretary said figures for the latest quarter showed that 80% of callers were advised to do something that was different from their original intention before phoning NHS Direct.
Less than one in ten people had intended to treat themselves before calling the helpline, but 38% were able to do so once they had spoken to a nurse.
Twenty per cent of callers were directed to more urgent care than they had anticipated, and 40% were directed to more routine sources of care.
Mr Dobson said: "NHS Direct is proving to be a modern, additional, convenient and dependable service for the people who turn to it.
"It is also proving to be a a very popular and professionally satisfying service with the nurses who staff it."
The government has already invested £44m in the scheme, and plans to make a further £10m available from its NHS Modernisation Fund.
Most NHS Direct schemes are run by ambulance trusts, in close collaboration with GP co-operatives and hospital trusts. It is planned that social services will also take an active role.
Mr Dobson said he hoped that nurses who had left the NHS - for instance because of physical injury or illness - could be persuaded to work for NHS Direct.
"NHS Direct stands to be popular with nurses, patients and doctors alike," he said.
"We are pleased the Health Secretary has decided to build on this project, the beginnings of which we started when in Government."
Dr Simon Fradd, chairman of the Doctor Patient Partnership, set up by the Department of Health and the British Medical Association to educate the public how best to use the health service, warned that new NHS Direct pilots needed time to become established before the milllennium celebrations.
He said: "We welcome the greater number of NHS Direct pilot sites but caution against launching new services in December.
"There needs to be adequate time to ensure services are equipped to cope with the expected surge in demand over Christmas and the New Year. To achieve this, they will need to be up and running as early as September."
Christine Hancock, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "NHS Direct is a great example of how nurses really can make a difference.
"This nurse-led service makes people take the right course in the right place at the right time."
The areas to be covered by NHS Direct from April are:
Schemes will now also be launched by the end of the year in South Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Liverpool and parts of London.