Headlines: April 17th, 2003

NHS Direct, the round-the-clock health advice service, is set to grow in a three-year programme which will enable it to handle 16 million calls a year by 2006. This will more than double the service’s call-handling capacity and will be backed by an 80 per cent funding increase to 182 million pounds.Announcing the plans the health minister, John Hutton, highlighted the success of the nurse-led service which already deals with half a million calls a month. With its web-based partner NHS Direct Online it is already the largest e-healthcare provider in the world.

Mr. Hutton said improved 24-hour access to clinical advice by telephone from home would cut the burden on GPs and the emergency services. In the West Country, for example, use of the system had resulted in a 34 per cent decrease in GPs’ out of hours workload. From 2005 the expansion will mean NHS Direct handling all low priority ‘999’ ambulance calls, freeing ambulances to deal with more urgent cases. A three-month pilot project in East Anglia saved an estimated 120 ambulance journeys.

Other plans include establishing a new national NHS Direct digital TV service by 2004 and offering patients a personal health organiser on NHS Direct Online for securely storing key health information about themselves by the end of this year. The plan also envisages NHS Direct becoming a distinct national organisation, independent of the Department of Health, with funding devolved from Whitehall direct to Primary Care Trusts by 2004.

Mr. Hutton said NHS Direct was a modern day service, designed around the way people live their lives today.