‘Diagnose yourself online’ before you call NHS 24

PATIENTS will be encouraged to seek NHS medical advice online instead of calling health professionals for help, under a controversial new scheme.

Scotlands out-of-hours emergency hotline NHS 24 has launched plans to reroute callers to online self-help guides and symptom checkers. Picture: Greg Macvean

Scotland’s out-of-hours emergency hotline NHS 24 has launched plans to “reroute” callers to online “self-help” guides and symptom checkers instead of dialling for a nurse.

The move will see sick patients encouraged to check symptoms such as coughs and colds, dizziness, and aches and pains with an online medical screening system.

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The change will be promoted to the Scottish public through social media to “encourage” patients to go online before dialling the non-emergency medical helpline 111.

The £350,000 scheme has been revealed amid rising numbers of Scots dialling NHS 24 for medical advice and growing cost pressures on the NHS. The number of patients calling NHS 24 has risen by 21 per cent since it switched over to its 111 number in March.

The web service would be cheaper to run in the long term than staffing the phoneline with additional nurses.

Last week it emerged the NHS must plug a £450 million funding shortfall by 2017.

But patients’ groups said yesterday they were horrified at the move, branding it “dangerous”.

NHS 24 deals with around 1.5 million calls each year for a range of medical problems from life-threatening conditions to general health queries.

The NHS 24 Local Unscheduled Care Action Plan states it will adopt an online tool called NHS Inform, which gives medical advice to patients by clicking on a variety of symptoms.

It states: “NHS 24 are keen to support the Scottish public to self-manage appropriate call presentations. Enhancement to NHS Inform will support the addition of self-help symptom checkers, enabling patients to try this prior to accessing out-of-hours services if not required.”

But Dr Jean Turner, chief executive of the Scotland Patients Association, criticised the move.

She said: “This is dangerous. Doctors and nurses are always at a disadvantage if they don’t have a patient in front of them, and if they are at a disadvantage then so is the patient.

“What is the point in training doctors for medical degrees if we are just going to have patients diagnosing themselves?”

However, Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw welcomed the initiative. He said: “Innovation is always welcome in our health service. Given the increasing demand on surgeries, doctors and other frontline staff, these new methods could prove highly effective.

“With the abundance of communications technology now available, it makes sense to explore new ways of bringing patients the medical advice they need.”

NHS 24 did not respond to a request to comment.