Up to half of calls to 999 may be non-emergencies
Trials of a new three-digit telephone number for patients seeking non-emergency medical care in England will be launched in 2010.
The North East, East of England and East Midlands will pilot the free 111 number which will act as an alternative to 999 when people do not need A&E.
The service will not initially replace NHS Direct but could do so in the longer term if it proves successful.
Ministers said it would help route patients to the right service.
The move follows a consultation by Ofcom earlier this year.
People calling 111 will be able to get health advice but also information about out-of-hours GP services and walk-in centres.
It is hoped it will take the pressure off 999 calls.
Estimates suggest up to half of 999 calls do not need an emergency response.
Anyone calling the number with an emergency will be directed to 999 for an ambulance to be dispatched, the Department of Health said.
Health Minister Mike O'Brien said: "Patients have told us that they need clear, easy advice on how to find healthcare quickly when it's less urgent than 999 and I am delighted that Ofcom has allocated 111 for these purposes.
"This will be particularly useful outside of GP surgery hours and for people who are away from home."
Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct said: "We believe that it will increase the access that patients have to the information and advice they need to help themselves and make best use of the NHS."
Peter Weissberg, medical director for the British Heart Foundation, said people with symptoms of a heart attack must still call for the emergency services without hesitation.
"Calling 999 as soon as you think you may be having a heart attack gives you the best possible chance of survival.
"Every year approximately 86,000 people die from heart attacks, a third of whom die before reaching hospital, often because the patient delays calling for help."