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NHS Direct, the new 24 hour telephone advice line, staffed by specialist nurses, is currently being piloted in three areas in the UK and is due to cover the whole country by 2000.
We follow the action in Newcastle where nurses have been staffing the helpline available to 788,000 people living in the city, North Tyneside and Northumberland round-the-clock since March this year.
In the first five weeks of operation, NHS Direct handled 790 calls, 95 per cent of which were symptom-based enquiries. The nurses respond with a range of help from calling an ambulance, an out-of-hours GP, recommending a visit to the surgery within a few days or specific advice on self-care.
Ten call operators, including four existing ambulance service staff and six new employees all with telecommunications experience, receive the calls and answer general enquiries. When health advice is needed, they transfer the call immediately to one of nine experienced nurses, all on secondment from the Newcastle City Health Trust.
Nurses give very specific guidance and if self-care is advised it is always accompanied by details of what to do if the condition changes, with the nurse explaining exactly how it might change.
Callers have, to date, contacted the helpline for adult and child rashes, diarrhoea and vomiting, upper respiratory chest infections, heavy colds, headache, backache, abdominal and chest pains.
The two other pilot sites are in Preston, Chorley and South Ribble (service provided by the Lancashire Ambulance Service NHS Trust) and in Milton Keynes (service provided by the Two Shires Ambulance Service).
More details on NHS Direct can be found on our pages in the Healthy Living section.