NHS Direct was launched in 1998, and now, after extensive piloting, covers the whole of England and Wales. It is the only completely new service set up by the NHS since 1948, and is the first service of its kind in the world.

What is NHS Direct?

It is a 24 hour telephone helpline, providing health information and advice. People can ring NHS Direct, on 0845 4647, at any time, day or night, and speak to a highly trained health professional.

For people worried about their health, or who have symptoms that bother them, they can speak to an experienced nurse. The nurse will discuss the problem with the caller and, assisted by up to date computer programmes, advise them as to the best course of action.

Often this advice will help the caller to look after the problem themselves, and give guidance on when further advice might be needed. Other callers may be advised that they need to speak to their GP, or perhaps to go to Casualty. In these circumstances, the nurse will suggest how urgently this needs to happen, meaning that the patient will get the right healthcare advice at the right time.

Many callers require health information, such as to how to find a dentist, or to know more about certain medical conditions and treatments. Ringing 0845 4647 will enable callers to speak to health information staff, who are trained to search for and provide this information, using libraries, other health organisations and the internet where necessary.

If English is not the preferred language, NHS Direct can provide interpreters, in many languages, within minutes of the call.

NHS Direct is also available online, at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk. The website offers access to information about conditions and treatments; links to other health websites; and advice about dealing with common symptoms.

How much does it cost ? How confidential is it ?

The only cost is that of a local call. The service is confidential, and callers may use the service anonymously if they wish. Sometimes the nurse may think it would be helpful for information to be shared with another health professional, and if the patient agrees, this can happen.

How successful is NHS Direct ?

Since NHS Direct started, over 3 million people have called 0845 4647. All these callers have been able to receive professional advice and information simply by making a phone call. Satisfaction surveys have shown that over 97 per cent of callers are happy with the service they receive.

When should I ring NHS Direct ?

  • If you are worried about your health, and donĀ¹t know what to do

  • If you are not sure whether you need to see a doctor

  • If you are thinking of going to Casualty, but feel it might not be necessary

  • If you need a health care service but are not sure where to find it

  • If you want to know more about a condition or type of treatment

  • If you find it difficult to get out of the house, but need health advice

What will happen in the future ?

NHS Direct is working with other parts of the health service to improve patient care. Links are being made with Casualty departments, local GPs, pharmacists, dentists and social services. By 2004, all out of hours healthcare will be accessible through one phone call to NHS Direct.

For many people in England and Wales, NHS Direct has already made a big difference to their health. In a few years, we will wonder how we ever managed without it.