NHS 24, the Scottish version of NHS Direct, has placed a £20.5m contract with BT to provide the telephone communications systems that will underpin the new service and integrate it with electronic patient records.

Under the ten-year partnership deal BT will deliver the managed network and IT services that will allow everyone in Scotland to access the new confidential nurse-led telephone service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

When fully operational, the system is expected to deal with around 2.5 million requests for health advice from the general public every year.

Unlike the NHS Direct service in England, NHS 24 will be integrated with GP practices, accident and emergency departments and the Scottish Ambulance Service to enable the immediate seamless transfer of electronic patient data within the local NHS.

Peter Dyke, head of market development described the NHS 24 project as momentous: "In this case we have been able to partner fully with NHS 24 being responsible for delivering everything – other than medical advice itself – that the service will rely on."

The contract covers the supply and maintenance of telecommunications and IT equipment and responsibility for the design, scope and capability of the NHS 24 systems. In addition, BT will design and fit-out three Contact Centres, provide facilities management and systems security.

Significantly, BT will also provide a fully managed end-to-end network service to NHS 24, providing all of each Centre’s IT capability including the computing systems, data management and help desk services.

Chief executive of NHS 24, Jim McIntyre, said: "Excellence in our communications and technology infrastructure is critical to the success of NHS 24 and we believe that BT’s track record in this area is second to none."

He added: "BT are recognised as global leaders in network capability. They are providing NHS 24 with a robust network which has an extremely high speed performance, which is essential in providing the public with the fast, responsive service we aim to deliver."

By 2004 all three of the NHS 24 Contact Centres will be linked through a fully integrated network to ensure an instant response irrespective of the patient’s location, time of call, or the demand on the system. The system is designed specifically to forecast and manage levels of demand.

NHS 24 will be launched in the Grampian area in Spring 2002. Tayside and Highland areas will be next to have the service available in a phased introduction that will cover the whole of Scotland in 2004.