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NHS Direct's Jill Stringer
NHS Direct has shown that it is a safe service
 real 28k

Patients' Association's Mike Stone
Most people are put through to call handlers
 real 28k

Tuesday, 8 August, 2000, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
NHS Direct: Friend or foe?
NHS Direct
The helpline will cover all of England by December
NHS Direct was launched by the government in 1998 as part of its plans to modernise the health service and make it more patient-friendly.

It aims to give patients a single-point of access to the NHS, where they can access health advice, information on health services and be directed to the most appropriate care.

It costs in the region of 80m to run each year and is staffed by call handlers and fully-qualified nurses.

The service, which is strongly supported by Prime Minister Tony Blair, will cover all of England by December and is being introduced in Scotland and Wales this year.

It is supposed to reduce demand on the NHS by encouraging patients to take care of themselves and by stopping people from going to their GP or local A&E department for treatment when they don't need it.

The helpline is extremely popular with patients - with satisfaction rates in the region of 97%.

Criticism

However, the service has been widely criticised because calls can take as long as 15 minutes, advice varies and there is a suspicion that nurses are sending patients to GPs and A&E departments anyway.


NHS Direct is a new service which still needs to prove its cost effectiveness

Dr John Chisholm, BMA

An independent study into the helpline, carried out by researchers at the University of Sheffield, found no evidence to suggest that the helpline was managing to reduce demand on the NHS.

Doctors believe it may be fuelling demand and they maintain that the money used to pay for the helpline could be used more effectively by GPs.

They are also concerned that the helpline could be adding to the shortage of nurses in hospitals.

But mostly doctors have been critical of the speed with which the helpline has been introduced across England.

Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the British Medical Association's GP committee, said the government rolled out NHS Direct without "waiting for final evaluation of the service."

He believes the helpline still has to prove that it is of benefit to patients and the NHS.

"NHS Direct is a new service which still needs to prove its cost effectiveness and value."

But Pippa Gough, director of policy at the Royal College of Nursing, supports the service but believes that improvements can be made.

"While telephone consultancy is safe, effective and popular with patients, with 97% of patients in a recent survey being satisfied with the service they received, there is always room for improvements."

Patient satisfaction

Ministers, however, are adamant that the service is a success and point to the high rates of patient satisfaction as evidence.


There is always room for improvements

Pippa Gough, RCN

They say that international studies show that a nurse-led helpline can help to encourage patients to take care of themselves and can alleviate pressure on the health service.

They also believe NHS Direct can play a greater role in the health service in future years.

In the recently launched national plan for the NHS, ministers said they wanted the helpline to become the first point of access for patients in the evenings when GPs close their surgeries by 2005.

They are also understood to be supportive of proposals for the helpline to become the first point of access for patients seeking treatment during the day.

This could mean that nurses on NHS Direct would book GP and hospital appointments for patients.

While such plans may do little to encourage GPs to support the service, ministers believe they are popular with patients and voters.

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07 Aug 00 | Health
NHS helpline 'risking lives'
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