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Feeling a bit rough? Have you tried NHS Direct?

May 21 2009
It‘s 24-hour, non-judgmental, confidential, and useful if you are not so keen on having someone access your medical records I only recently learned about the National Syndromic Surveillance System; software that examines all the subjects of calls logged-in by NHS Direct and picks out any of its 11 key symptoms. What this means is that if a chemical attack is launched on Blighty and everyone starts calling NHS Direct to ask for advice on, for example, green toes, the computers will identify a surge in calls of a similar nature. Measures can then be put in place to quarantine green-toed people or help get the anti-green vaccine out ahead of its spread. As we haven't had any chemical attacks, the system is limited to monitoring rises in community illness and cases of sunburn; thus providing a reasonably accurate picture of the British summer. Such a benign surveillance system can only be effective if it is reliable, which raises the question: how many people actually use NHS Direct for managing their illness? Well, I was surprised to read that NHS Direct averages 600,000 over-the-phone consultations a month. Add to this the newer online service - which allows you to search for information regarding specific symptoms, leading you through a simple yes/no algorithm that will either have you racing off to A&E or following clear advice regarding self-management - and it does seem that NHS Direct is pretty good at enabling people to take control of their illnesses. Many of those who call are simply looking for reassurance, but there are also those who are using the service as they don't want to be considered ‚Äö?Ñ??timewasters' at the local surgery. A few also find the anonymity of a telephone call an attractive option. But can the NHS really justify the costs of running NHS Direct? When the average cost-per-call answered is just over ¬¨¬£16, and many callers phone more than once, or are urged to attend their GP anyway, is it defensible to spend such huge sums on the ‚Äö?Ñ??worried-well'? If it could be shown that NHS Direct resulted in a reduction in GP consultations or A&E attendance, then the benefits would be obvious, but, unfortunately, all the studies are showing that this service, which was designed to prevent surgeries from being clogged up, is having little impact on GP waiting lists or Casualty times. Moreover, it's the more affluent in society who use NHS Direct most - those without two brass farthings just don't call. However, it's unlikely to be decommissioned and will most probably try and become more accessible to those it is currently failing to reach. Perhaps that's a good thing; it is well known that men are poor at checking in with the doc until their illness has progressed, with potentially serious consequences, and it might just be that the NHS Direct online service, with its anonymity and convenience, can appeal to a male audience, more than the touchy-feeliness of the practice nurse. With regards to you, dear readers, the online NHS Direct pages allow you to find a local GP or other healthcare services - helpful when pitching up in a new town. It's also 24 hour, unlike any GP surgery. It's non-judgmental, confidential, and useful if you are not so keen on having someone access your medical records. All that and you can use any language online; the phone operators can use a translation service. Politics aside, NHS Direct is a pretty good system and well worth trying, should you have any niggling concerns. Chances are you'll be forwarded onto your doc, but at least you'll know not to ignore those pesky green toes any longer.