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The BBC's James Westhead
"NHS Direct isn't a panacea for the NHS' problems"
 real 28k

BBC Radio Five Live's Sharon Alcock
"Ambulance services are plagued by simple calls"
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Health minister Gisela Stuart
"90% of people who used it were satisfied"
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Monday, 20 March, 2000, 13:01 GMT
Helpline to take 999 calls
NHS Direct
Some 999 callers to be re-routed to NHS Direct
Non-urgent 999 calls will be transferred to the NHS Direct health helpline under plans to be announced by the government.

Callers who want an ambulance but have a complaint which operators think does not warrant one, will be re-directed to ease the pressure on hard-pressed emergency services.

And the service could in future be used to remind patients about vaccinations and hospital appointments.

Some people ring 999 when they would be much better off ringing NHS Direct in the first place, but until now operators have not been able to transfer them

Department of Health
The move, to be announced by health minister Gisela Stuart at a Royal College Of Nursing conference on Monday, will be piloted in five areas before going nationwide.

The Department of Health said it would free emergency service operators and ensure people with minor complaints receive the advice and help they need more quickly.

The NHS Direct helpline was established by the Department of Health to ease pressure on GPs and other health professionals. It is staffed by nurses who can provide advice or direct patients to other services 24 hours a day.

More serious

All callers put through to NHS Direct under the new scheme will speak to one of the trained nurses, who will be able to arrange an ambulance if the problem is more serious than the 999 operator had thought.

Health minister Gisela Stuart said: "Anybody who needs an ambulance will get an ambulance, there is no doubt about that. But there are occasions when people don't know what to do and they may dial 999 as a first response."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The kind of things that will be transferred would be sore throats and so on, for which the 999 operator would not be able to offer much useful help.

"It is all about giving people a more appropriate service. Some people ring 999 when they would be much better off ringing NHS Direct in the first place, but until now operators have not been able to transfer them."

The move follows the winter flu crisis, when emergency calls soared by 40% as many flu sufferers over-estimated the degree of urgency of their complaint.

Mike Stone of the Patients' Association told the BBC: "In many ways it is a good idea. The 999 service get a huge amount of calls.

"Many of those calls should not be going to the 999 service. Quite rightly some of them should be going to NHS Direct."

The announcement comes as NHS Direct marks its second birthday with a survey from Sheffield University showing 90% of users have found the helpline satisfactory.

But GPs have attacked the system, which now covers two-thirds of the country, saying it could damage their "gatekeeper" role and that it has not reduced workloads.

NHS Direct Online, the internet version of the service, will also be extended, it was announced on Monday. And an additional 1m is being put into training NHS Direct staff, ministers said.

Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said at the celebration of the service's second birthday: "The real cause of celebration is that NHS Direct is driven by a willingness to respond to what people want and need.

"The driving force behind it comes from patients and NHS users. I'm very proud that it is nurses who have led the way."

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See also:

07 Dec 99 | Health
Health care goes online
27 Feb 99 | Health
NHS helpline to go national
02 Feb 99 | Health
Nurse advice line extended
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