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NHS Direct gets to be number one, one, one

Proposal for those unable to look up a phone number

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UK regulator Ofcom has proposed allocating the number 111 for non-emergency medical advice, arguing that no-one can remember the number for NHS Direct.

The proposal runs to 61 pages (pdf), but boils down to the idea that people dialling "111" anywhere in England should be connected to NHS Direct. Scotland should follow soon, while Wales thinks about it and Northern Ireland considers introducing something along the lines of NHS Direct first.

There is some argument that 116117 would make a better alternative: it's been proposed by Germany and is currently in the process of being ratified for unification across Europe. But as it stands, it is designed to connect the caller to the nearest doctor rather than to an NHS-Direct-type service.

Most callers trying to get hold of NHS Direct would be delighted to be connected to the nearest doctor instead of the "trained health advisors ... supported by in-house software" that NHS Direct offers, but that would cost a lot more and probably be a waste of resources when the primary function is to tell people they haven't got Swine flu.

Whether non-emergency callers need a easily-remembered number is also arguable - the very fact that it's not an emergency should give them time to look up the proper number*. But that's quite a lot of effort, and the introduction of 111 might reduce the non-emergency calls that 999 currently has to deal with - Ofcom reckons that 29 per cent of emergency calls made last year fell into that category, with no ambulance being dispatched.

Callers will have pay though: Ofcom isn't proposing that 111 be a free number any more than calls to the existing NHS Direct service are free. But the regulator notes that "experience with 101 (the three-digit number initiated by the Home Office) showed that negotiation with telecoms providers can result in the same call charge across virtually all operators", so at least everyone will pay the same amount.

All makes sense to us, but if you feel strongly on the issue then Ofcom is welcoming comments until 20th of August. ®

* 0845 4647 in England and Wales, 08454 242424 for Scotland and those in Northern Ireland have to cope on their own, in case you were wondering.

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