A prototype for an NHS 111 digital service is being piloted in Lincolnshire.

NHS Direct worked with NHS Choices and the Department of Health on options for delivering an NHS 111 service through digital channels and is now at the testing stage.

The Department of Health has committed to developing an NHS 111 digital service to sit alongside the NHS 111 non-emergency telephone number.

The online service will allow people to access health information, details of their local services and help and advice on symptoms.

NHS Direct has already developed online health and symptom checkers that are used by millions of people every year.

The prototype makes use of these and includes new functionality for users in the Lincolnshire area.

The pilot is being used to explore patients’ requirements for accessing a digital service, including use of web chat and provision of information on locally available services.

Also, to investigate the necessary technical capabilities to integrate NHS 111 digital with other services and any additional features that would be valued by patients, clinicians and commissioners.

NHS Direct chief executive Nick Chapman told eHealth Insider the organisation’s push to provide more health information and advice services online has been a significant success.

There were more than 10m uses of its online health and symptom checkers via the web and mobile app last year.

This has led to a corresponding drop in telephone activity of about 15% to around 4m calls a year.

Chapman said NHS Direct is working with the DH on digital prototypes, but the service is yet to take shape.

How or if this service will be contracted out is not yet clear, but Chapman hoped NHS Direct would be in a good position to deliver it if given the chance.

In the meantime, NHS Direct will continue to provide the online symptom checkers service until at least June next year – three months after the 111 contract is in place nationwide.

A statement from NHS Direct said more than 60% of the UK population search for health information online, and almost 50% of those people are looking to self-diagnose.

“There is a clear need to provide the public with high quality, clinically validated information through a variety of channels,” the statement said.

“It is proposed that in the future, members of the public will have access to NHS 111 through the telephone and web, receiving a consistent service irrespective of the channel they choose to use.”

Rebecca Todd interviews Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct, in this week’s Insight.