By Claire West

A new three-digit number - 111 - that will make it easier for patients to access non-emergency NHS healthcare wherever they are, 24 hours a day, was launched by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley today.

The new service, launched in part of the North East of England today, marks the first step towards a national roll out and is the beginning of a significant White Paper commitment to make care more accessible by introducing a single telephone number for every kind of non-emergency health care.

The 111 service is free to call and is staffed by a team of fully trained call advisers, supported by nurses, who are on hand to assess callers’ needs and ensure they receive the right service as quickly as possible. It guides patients to a locally available service or provides appropriate advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The number can be used when you need help fast but it is not life threatening, or when you do not know who to call. This will be particularly useful outside of GP surgery hours and for people who are away from home.

When someone calls 111, they will be assessed straight away. If it is an emergency, an ambulance will be despatched immediately without the need for any further assessment. For any other health problems, the NHS 111 call advisers will be able to direct people to the service that is best able to meet their individual needs. For minor illnesses and injuries, the 111 service will be able to provide immediate medical advice.

Visiting the very first operational 111 call centre in the North East to talk to staff and patients about how the service is working, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said:

“It is essential that we improve access to, and understanding about, urgent care services, which includes out-of-hours care. At present, too many people are confused about who to contact and how to do so.

“By putting in place one, easily memorable 111 number for all urgent inquiries to run alongside the emergency ‘999’ number we will simplify NHS services for patients. 111 will be free to call and available 24/7, putting patients in touch with the right NHS service, first time.

“I am delighted that people in County Durham and Darlington are to be the first to benefit from this new service. Later this year we will launch the service in Nottingham City, Lincolnshire and Luton. Ahead of national roll-out, this will help us understand what model works best for patients and delivers value for money.”

Yasmin Chaudhry, Chief Executive of NHS County Durham and Darlington said:

“The NHS 111 service will make it easier for the public to access urgent healthcare and will drive improvements in the way in which the NHS delivers that care. We want to make sure the right care is delivered in the right way for patients as well as ensuring NHS resources are used in the best way.

“By better understanding what people really need from different local services, 111 will help improve efficiency across the whole health care system by reducing unnecessary waste and making sure people get access to the right service, first time.”

Further pilots are planned for the East Midlands in Nottingham City and Lincolnshire and the East of England in Luton. Both regions have been chosen to test different ways of delivering the 111 service using various NHS providers that include the Ambulance Trust, an Out-of-Hours service and NHS Direct.