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£2million for research into expanding the role of NHS Direct

Press release issued: 24 November 2009

The way NHS Direct assists people with long term health conditions could be transformed thanks to a £2million grant awarded by the National Institute for Health Research to medical experts at the University of Bristol.

The team, headed by Chris Salisbury, Professor of Primary Health Care at Bristol, will undertake a five year research programme to find out the type of services that people with long term conditions (LTCs) would like NHS Direct to provide and the types of people who would find this most useful.  The researchers will then develop suitable services and test whether they work.

Professor Salisbury said: “As the population is getting older, more and more people are living with LTCs such as asthma, diabetes and depression.  The number of people affected is so large – and is getting larger – that the NHS needs to explore new ways of working.  There is great interest in the potential of ‘telehealth’ based on technologies such as the internet and the telephone to improve care for people with LTCs. 

“In England, we already have a national service, NHS Direct, which combines services based on the telephone and internet but it could have a much bigger role in actively reaching out to people with LTCs.”

The research programme will focus on patients at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke and patients with depression, as examples of two different types of long term condition.

The researchers will review all the best international evidence available about the role of telehealth in LTCs to develop ideas about how NHS Direct might usefully improve care for LTCs.

They will interview people with LTCs about ways in which NHS Direct could help them to look after themselves and also interview health professionals about how it could help them manage LTCs.

Patients at high risk of stroke or heart attack and patients with depression will also be asked about difficulties they have accessing care, their needs, and the types of care they would like from NHS Direct.  The researchers will then identify the types of people most likely to benefit from NHS Direct care for LTCs.

Working with patients, professionals and NHS Direct itself, the researchers will develop new programmes of care and support for people at high risk of heart attack and people with depression.

These patients will then be invited to register for new programmes of NHS Direct-supported care, and compare the benefits and costs of these programmes versus usual forms of care.  The researchers will measure the benefits in terms of better health and quality of life, healthier lifestyles and peoples’ positive experiences of their care, as well as measuring the costs both to patients and to the NHS.

If these new programmes are successful they could quickly be rolled out nationally, thanks to the existing NHS Direct infrastructure, to benefit very large numbers of people.

The research team is a partnership between NHS Direct and leading academics in the universities of Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester and Southampton and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

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