NHS Direct has launched an online self-assessment tool that it hopes will reduce demand on its telephone service over the winter months.

The health helpline said the initial assessment tool would enable patients to bypass an initial telephone assessment and instead go on to the NHS Direct website to assess their symptoms and get advice.

EHI Primary Care revealed last week that NHS Direct is to miss some of its key performance targets for the last three months of the year, and the online assessment tool is seen as one of the ways to help it get back on track.

NHS Direct said the online assessment mirrored the clinical assessment criteria used over the telephone by health advisers. Patients would be asked similar questions to those asked over the telephone and the outcomes, based on the answers, would be the same.

Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct, said the introduction of the online assessment tool followed the success of the helpline’s cold and flu symptom checker that was used at the start of the swine flu pandemic.

He added: “This new tool will mean that our nurses on the phones will have more time to deal with people who most benefit from a telephone assessment or those people with the most urgent needs.”

The assessment tool provides advice and information on all symptoms and conditions and includes self-care advice as well as directing patients to another health service in appropriate.

People who need further advice can click to get a call-back from an NHS Direct nurse adviser.

NHS Direct said winter was traditionally the health service’s busiest period and that in November this year it had received 70% more calls about cold and flu than in November 2008. The cold and flu symptom checker has been used more than 5m times since the end of April.