A new system in which nurses answer out-of-hours calls to ease the burden on family doctors will be tested for the first time this month.
Demand for out-of-hours primary medical care has quadrupled in the last 25 years according to the Royal College of Nursing which is supporting the research at Southampton University.
A telephone service which offers out-of-hours medical advice to patients will be given a year's trial in Salisbury. British Telecom has provided a grant of pounds 270,000.
Under the system, patients will be able to call their normal surgery number and speak to a nurse about a health problem, even in the middle of the night. The nurse will assess the call and give health advice using agreed clinical guidelines. If needed, or demanded by the patient, a doctor will be called.
It is hoped that that it will help family doctors faced with ever increasing demands for expert advice from patients outside normal surgery hours. Doctors estimate that half the night calls they receive could be dealt with on the telephone.
In September the Government put together a pounds 45m package to equip primary care centres for night and weekend visits after doctors had threatened industrial action over night visits. Similar telephone services are already common in such countries as Canada, Sweden and the United States.
"There are two potential benefits," said Dr Steve George, senior lecturer in public health medicine at Southampton University. "It may reduce visits by half which consequently benefits the people doctors do visit as they will be able to get there quicker. And those who do not really need to see the doctor can ring up for advice to set their mind at rest."Reuse content