NHS Direct has been urged to allow patients to use 0345 as an alternative to the current 0845 number, before 111 is introduced.

Telephone campaigner David Hickson says it will be at least three years before the three digit non-emergency number 111 is in use nationwide.

In the meantime, he claims that most patients are paying extra to access the NHS via the 0845 number.

The Department of Health plans for its new 111 service to be available nationwide from 2013.

Hickson claims NHS Direct already has an 0345 number set up and ready for use and that this should be introduced to work in parallel with its 0845 number, while this remains in use.

He told EHI Primary Care: “I’m not suggesting they scrap 0845 and all the promotional costs involved in that. But all those who do not benefit from cheap rates to 0845 numbers should be encouraged to use the alternative 0345 number.”

Hickson claims his investigations have found that all telephone callers except BT landline users pay a premium for calling the 084 number.

He claims this can mean as much as an extra £2.20 for public payphone users and £3.60 for Orange Racoon pay-as-you-go customers, for an average length call to NHS Direct.

Hickson said the NHS Choose and Book Appointments Line has changed its telephone number from 0845 to 0345 and said NHS Direct now needs to do the same.

A spokesperson for NHS Direct told EHI Primary Care that it was a “policy matter” for the DH to consider.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Changing the NHS Direct number to a 0345 number for a limited period of time would cause significant confusion to patients at a time when we are trying to simplify the healthcare system and making it more accessible to patients.

"The NHS 111 telephone number will eventually replace NHS Direct 0845 4647 telephone service when it is rolled out nationally in 2013 and will provide a single point of access for all urgent care services.”

More details on the 111 service published on the DH site this week state that the 111 number will replace the NHS Direct telephone service and adds “unlike NHS Direct, the service is free to call.”

It adds: “NHS 111 call advisers have the same level of training as 999 telephone operators and use a state of the art clinical assessment system to assess callers’ needs effectively, ensuring they are directed to the right NHS service, first time around. Any complex calls will be passed to a nurse advisor.”

In the meantime, Network Europe Group, which supplies 084 numbers to 1,500 GP practices, has issued its own research, which it claims shows that every month 20m patient calls to practices using normal landlines result in an engaged tone.

The row over use of 084 numbers by NHS organisations has run for several issues and resulted in the previous government announcing that it would ban the use of premium rate numbers in the NHS.

However, the BMA’s GP committee told GP practices at the beginning of the year  that they can continue to use 084 numbers if they obtain confirmation from their supplier that they are no more expensive than making a local call – and they said NEG would guarantee this.