Trials of a three-digit telephone number for those needing non-emergency medical care in England have been launched in the North East.
NHS County Durham and Darlington Primary Care Trusts are to pilot the free 111 number, to act as an alternative to 999, followed by Nottingham, Lincolnshire and Luton.
The government service will not initially replace NHS Direct, but may do so in the longer term if successful.
If so, it will be available nationwide.
People calling 111 will be able to get health advice and also information about local services such as out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour pharmacies.
It is hoped it will take the pressure off 999 calls, amid estimates suggesting that up to half of these calls do not need an emergency response.
But anyone calling the number with an emergency will be directed to 999 for an ambulance to be dispatched.
“It is essential that we improve access to, and understanding about, urgent care services, which includes out-of-hours care,” said Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. “At present, too many people are confused about who to contact and how to do so.
“By putting in place one, easily memorable 111 number for all urgent inquiries to run alongside the emergency 999 number we will simplify NHS services for patients.”
999 or 111?
Professor Stephen Singleton, medical director of NHS North East, said: “The introduction of the NHS 111 service in County Durham and Darlington is an important part of our regional vision to improve access to urgent healthcare for local people.
“By better understanding what people really need from different local services, 111 will enable the commissioning of more effective and productive health care.
“Most importantly it will help improve efficiency across the whole health care system by reducing unnecessary waste and making sure people get access to the right service, first time.”
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “We welcome initiatives that increase patients’ access to information and advice, and also increase NHS efficiency.
“However, we are concerned this new phone number means the public have to make life or death decisions about whether their situation is a medical emergency.
“We welcome the pilots and would like them to raise awareness and educate the public on when to call 111 or 999.”
BBC News Health