The 111 number has gone live in County Durham and Darlington.
The new three digit number is being used to supplement the 999 emergency number and NHS Direct.
It connects callers to non-emergency care services, such as urgent and out-of-hours services, using the NHS Pathways software.
The software has been developed by doctors, nurses and IT specialists, and enables call handlers to direct people to the most appropriate service by assessing their clinical needs and matching them with a directory of local services.
The call handlers are supported by nurses and can send ambulances and paramedics to callers if necessary.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed that the service had gone live and said that an independent academic institution had been commissioned to evaluate the pilot areas.
“They will be evaluated in stages as they develop, to provide a much quicker understanding of the quality and costs of the service that is being delivered than would be the case were the evaluation to take place after the pilots had been completed,” the spokesperson told E-Health Insider.
The aim of the service is to relieve some of the pressure on the 999 service and Accident and Emergency departments.
It will run alongside NHS Direct and will be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The 111 number is expected to be launched in Nottingham City, Lincolnshire and Luton by the end of November.
The service will be piloted alongside NHS Direct but may replace the service if successful.
The spokesperson said: “We would expect the scope to grow and 111 to become the single telephone access point for a wide range of non-emergency healthcare services, including those provided by the NHS Direct 0845 service."
Award winners: NHS Pathways won the ‘team of the year’ award in the E-Health Insider Awards 2008 in association with BT.
The awards will be presented on Wednesday, 6 October in the Grand Hall at the Grand Connaught Rooms, Covent Garden, London. For more information or to reserve a table, please visit the awards website.