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Massive rise in demand for NHS Direct

NHS Winter report also reveals 1% of all operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons

OnMedica Staff

Thursday, 10 April 2008

NHS Direct, the telephone, TV and internet health advice and information service saw a 61% leap in activity over the Christmas and New Year holiday season. And an almost 50% increase in cases of winter vomiting disease was a factor in the cancellation of over 15,000 operations - 1% of all electives - over the holidays.
According to the NHS Winter Report published yesterday NHS Direct received 270,000 telephone calls during the 11-day Christmas holiday period and over 800,000 visits to NHS Direct online. This represents an increase of 61% compared with the same period - 21 December to 1 January - in 2006/07.

The busiest day for telephone calls was Saturday 29 December, when the service received 30,096 calls. This also made it the busiest day in 2007. Boxing Day followed close behind with 29,299 calls.

The top five conditions discussed with NHS Direct call handlers were dental pain, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and respiratory tract symptoms.

The top five online topics were flu, chickenpox, chest infection (adult), irritable bowel syndrome and shingles.

Between 1 November 2006 and 31 January 2007 NHS Direct answered 1,486,469 calls and received 5,039,000 online hits. In the same period 12 months later it received 1,614,838 telephone calls and  9,246,000 website hits.

The report also reveals that 2007 saw an increase in reports of norovirus - commonly known as "winter vomiting disease" - compared with the same period last year (4,412 for weeks 27 to 9 in 2007/08 compared with 2,984 in 2006/07). The outbreak led to a number of hospitals being forced to close wards to new admissions and toughen up hygiene measures.

The virus was also a contributing factor in a rise in cancelled operations. The report reveals that  between October and December 2007, 15,599 operations - 1% of all elective admissions - were cancelled at the last minute due to non-clinical reasons. This represents 1% of all elective admissions. This is an increase on the same period in 2006/07, but, overall, 17.2% lower than the same period in 2000/01.

Norovirus is the most common cause of infectious gastroenteritis and, although relatively mild, illness can occur at any age because immunity to it is not long-lasting. Outbreaks in semi-closed environments such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools and cruise ships are common.

Several factors are thought to have contributed to the increase this year:

*the norovirus season started uncharacteristically early compared with other years

*increased awareness of the infection and symptoms by both the public and physicians, hence more cases are being identified

*improvements made in diagnostics at regional laboratories, and the increased sensitivity in testing, may have resulted in more cases being diagnosed.

Despite increased demand and increased activity Professor Sir George Alberti, the National Director of Emergency Access and Dr David Colin-Thome ,the National Clinical Director of Primary Care, said the NHS coped well. In their executive summary to the report they said:

"This report for another year sets out the record of achievement of the NHS and its key partners in continuing to deliver a high quality of care during the winter months. This is now becoming an enduring NHS legacy of hard work and professionalism, in which the winter is simply a routine and predictable period for which the NHS is well prepared and which does not cause it to break stride."

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