Younger people are more likely to call NHS Direct on their mobiles than make an appointment to see their GP, a study by Imperial College supported by Vodafone has revealed.

The paper, one of several in a series of essays published by Vodafone entitled ‘The Role of Mobile Phones in Increasing Accessibility and Efficiency in Healthcare’, was authored by Dr Rifat Atun and Dr Ipek Urganci from the Centre for Health Management.

The researchers found that over 59% of mobile phone calls to NHS Direct were made by patients in their teens, twenties and early thirties. Furthermore, the least frequent users of GP services – men aged 16-44, according to 2002’s General Household Survey – are the most frequent users of the service.

"This reinforces the argument that NHS Direct has increased access to health services for certain groups and furthermore the ability to access NHS Direct via mobile phones further increases choice, access and accessibility for those groups."

Another group who frequently called NHS Direct using mobiles are teenage girls aged 15 to 19, says the study. This, surmised the researchers, might be because of a greater desire for privacy among this demographic, making them less likely to use a land line.

Researchers calculated their finding from data about the origin, length, time of 3.3 million calls made to NHS Direct between December 2004 and May 2005. Phone numbers were "modified for confidentiality"; the only useful information from the phone numbers was whether it was a fixed or a mobile line.

During the six month period studies, calls to NHS Direct rose by an average of 1.5% – however, taken on their own, calls from mobiles increased by nearly 5%. The likelihood that a caller would phone the service from the mobile was 18.7%.

"People over 50 are significantly less likely to use telephony or technology in healthcare and are more likely to rely on traditional methods of consultation, such as a pre-booked GP surgery appointment," said the researchers, adding that it wasn’t possible to say whether younger people may continue to use mobile technology to access healthcare.

Dr Mike Sadler, medical director of NHS Direct in a foreword to the research: "Mobile phone technology is a key part of today’s society, and shares some of the characteristics of NHS Direct in its ability to increase access and availability of services and information."

"SMS offers further opportunities to deploy the benefits of mobile phone technology and improve access to healthcare and information," said Dr Sadler. "NHS Direct is committed to exploring this area further in 2006."