NHS Direct may offer GP appointment booking to commissioning consortia as part of its plans to work with the new bodies running primary care.

The health helpline said its discussions with the GP-led bodies have covered how it could work with them on projects including triage of same-day appointments.

A spokesperson for NHS Direct told EHI Primary Care that GP appointment booking “could be something we offer in the future, but only if that is what GP commissioners want to commission from us.”

The spokesperson said it had already discussed trialling a same-day appointments triage service with one GP consortium; but any service would be piloted on a small scale initially.

Outsourcing GP appointment booking was mooted in a Department of Health funded report in November, which suggested that national or regional call centres could handle appointment booking, saving millions of pounds.

At the time, the DH said it had no plans to introduce national call centres for GP call handling.

Last month, however, health secretary Andrew Lansley told the Sunday Times that the NHS 111 urgent care service could be expanded to offer GP appointment booking.

A DH spokesperson told EHI Primary Care that the pilots that are already underway on the NHS 111 service would inform the national roll-out.

She added: “However, the NHS 111 service is not intended to be the only number for access to all health services.

"The number is for when people need help fast – but it is not a 999 emergency – and they don’t know who to call.

"For less urgent medical needs, people should continue to contact their GP in the usual way, and for immediate life threatening emergencies call 999.”

The 111 service is currently being piloted in three areas but the DH sought further expressions of interests to run pilots in December. It said this week that it was reviewing those expressions of interest.

NHS Direct said its engagement with the emerging GP-led commissioning consortia was around how they could work together in future.

The spokesperson added: “We are at the exploratory stage but the focus of discussions has been around 111 pilots, practice/local level reporting systems, web services, management of patients with long term conditions, out of hours appointment booking and triage of same day appointments.”

A report presented to NHS Direct’s board meeting last week said the helpline had held meetings with nine consortia so far.

The report said the board was in discussions with one GP commissioning consortium about forming a ‘hothouse’ partnership.

NHS Direct would provide management support to scope potential improvements and cost savings in the urgent care patient pathway and test potential innovation projects.

The report adds: “These could range from a 111 pilot to trialling in hours triage and booking systems. It would also provide an opportunity to test any new GP surgery level reporting systems."