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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 01:48 GMT 02:48 UK
Helpline 'has not eased' NHS pressure
NHS Direct
The helpline is not yet running nationwide
The introduction of NHS Direct - a medical advice phoneline - has not lessened the pressure on hospitals and GPs, say researchers.

The helpline, staffed by trained nurses, advises patients who are worried about sudden medical problems.

One of its aims was to pick up people who need urgent treatment, but have not realised the seriousness of the situation.

But it was also hoped that the phoneline would prevent people calling out their GP in the middle of the night, or rushing to accident and emergency with relatively minor problems which do not need immediate attention.

No fall

However, a study by researchers at Sheffield University's Medical Care Research Unit suggests that night-time GP callouts and demand for ambulances and casualty treatment has not fallen.

There was no effect on use of ambulances and accident and emergencies, while demand for out-of-hours GP visits has dropped by just 0.8%.

The study's authors noted: "If it turns out that NHS Direct has provided 'easier and faster advice and information', and has improved access to health care for those who need it, then the fact that this has been achieved without increasing demand on other services seems encouraging."

However, Dr Laurence Buckman, a north London GP who has been monitoring the progress of NHS Direct for the British Medical Association, said the jury was still out.

He said: "The questions that the taxpayer want answered are how many people who phone NHS Direct actually do what they are told, and how often are they told to do the right thing?

"There are some NHS Direct services that seem to generate a lot of extra work for GPs and hospitals, and there are some which send highly inappropriate referrals.

"On the other hand, some are very reasonable - these are generally the ones which have included GPs in discussions about how they should be set up."

The government intends to extend NHS Direct to cover the entire country.

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