Ofcom has launched a consultation on the use of a national 111 non-emergency number for healthcare.

Following the consultation, the Department of Health plans to pilot the new number and to roll the service out across England.

Ofcom, the independent regulator for the UK communications industries, will run the consultation from today, looking at use of the 111 number for patients who need medical help urgently but whose situation is not life-threatening.

Ofcom said 999 and 112 (the single European emergency call number) would continue to be the numbers to call in an emergency and that, in the short term, 111 would not replace existing local telephone services or NHS Direct.

In the long term, 111 could become the single number to access non-emergency care services in England, including NHS Direct.

Ofcom said the DH pilots would be launched from spring 2010 and the service would then be rolled out across England.

Health authorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales may consider whether to introduce the 111 number following the outcome of the pilots in England, it said.

Health minister Mike O’Brien said: “Patients have told us that they need clear, easy advice on how to find healthcare when they don’t need to go to A&E, and we have asked Ofcom to consult on making a new national 111 number available for them.

“The NHS already provides a range of urgent care services. The memorable 111 number will support these services and provide more choice for patients to find the care they need. This will be particularly useful outside of GP surgery hours and for people who are away from home.”

Lord Darzi’s final report on his Next Stage Review of the NHS recommended that the NHS should continue to explore options for a single national three-digit number providing access to advice and information on non-emergency care.

The Ofcom consultation invites comments on the new number and explains how the 111 number allocation process will work.

Ofcom said the price of calls will be determined by the DH through negotiations with communications providers, and the consultation sets out a range of pricing options. These include making calls free to the caller, 10p per call, 3p per minute or charged at local or national rates.

NHS Direct has faced criticism over use of its current premium rate 0845 number and the DH has yet to announce its decision on the use of 084 numbers in the health service, following its own consultation on the issue.

A three digit 101 was piloted by the Home Office and is used in some areas of the country to provide advice, information and action for community safety matters including non-emergency crime, policing and anti-social behaviour. The Ofcom consultation on the 111 number closes on 20 August.