NHS Direct Wales provides a valuable service but needs to be better integrated into the wider unscheduled care system, according to the Welsh Audit Office.
A report from the Auditor General found that the health helpline is viewed as something separate to the unscheduled care system, instead of as a core part of it.
It also found that its contribution was poorly understood across the NHS. The auditor said the helpline had the potential to add further value, but needed a clearer strategic direction.
The report recommended that health boards should consider how NHS Direct Wales could act as a hub through which callers can be directed along the most appropriate pathway for their clinical needs, supported by directories of service.
It said the health helpline should share information on cost and performance nationally and locally to support the planning and funding of services across unscheduled care.
And it recommended that NHS Direct Wales should monitor patients’ behaviour and choices to make sure they access unscheduled care at the most appropriate point within the system.
The report also recommended that the Welsh Assembly Government and health boards should consider using NHS Direct Wales to support chronic conditions management and health promotion, using nurse advisers and health information specialists.
Jeremy Colman, Auditor General for Wales, said his recommendations would help to realise the potential of NHS Direct Wales.
He added: “While NHS Direct provides valuable services which most people seem to like, there is scope for it to be much more effectively integrated within the unscheduled care system providing a more seamless service for the public.”
The auditor reported that NHS Direct Wales cost just under £9m in 2008-09 and received more than 340,000 calls at a cost of around £26 per call as well as receiving 450,000 web visits.
Auditors said the costs were broadly comparable with similar services in England but said there was scope to improve efficiency by improving call handling times and reducing the rate of sickness absence and staff turnover.
The report is the second in a series of reports the WAO is completing as part of its national study into the effectiveness of unscheduled care services in Wales.