THE one-stop shop for health information and advice in Wales is celebrating its 20th birthday.
NHS Direct Wales, which is hosted by the Welsh Ambulance Service, is available to call 24 hours a day, every day for people who are feeling ill and are unsure what to do.
It manages an average 46,000 calls per month, while its website allows the public to check their symptoms online and search for their nearest dentist, minor injuries unit, pharmacy, GP, sexual health clinic and other services.
NHS Direct Wales is the backbone of the new NHS 111 Wales service, which is live in four of the seven Welsh health board areas and will, over time, be replaced by 111 entirely.
Iwan Griffiths, Clinical Operations Manager for NHS Direct Wales/NHS 111 Wales, said: “What began as a small team of 50 staff in a Swansea call centre has grown to a 300-strong team of call handlers and clinicians working right across Wales.
“Not only is it a source of health advice and information for the public, but it also helps to triage low acuity patients which come in via 999.
“Of these, around 65% are signposted to a more appropriate health service by our nurse advisors, preserving our ambulances for those who need them most.
“At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, calls from the public to NHS Direct Wales/NHS 111 Wales quadrupled to roughly 160,000 calls per month.”
NHS Direct Wales launched in June 2000 in Swansea and was designed to be a single point of access for health information and advice for the people of Wales.
A second call centre opened in Bangor later that year, which still exists at Ysbyty Gwynedd, supported by a third call centre in Cwmbran.
A further two sites have since opened to support the operation; one in St Asaph and one at Withybush Hospital in Haverfordwest.
In 2001, NHS Direct Wales joined forces with England’s NHS Direct service to run a helpline set up in response to the Alder Hey organ scandal.
In 2016, a new 111 service launched in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board area and has since been extended into Hywel Dda, Powys and Aneurin Bevan University Health Board areas.
Rollout in the other three health board areas – Betsi Cadwaladr, Cwm Taf and Cardiff and Vale – will follow, and signal the replacement of NHS Direct Wales entirely.
Iwan said: “NHS Direct Wales has been a trusted source of health information for many years and recently, we’ve seen it start to evolve from the brand we know and love into NHS 111 Wales, the number for which will be free from all telephones, whether landline or mobile.
“Twenty years has absolutely flown by, but we’re thrilled to have been part of ambulance service history and to have blazed the trail for NHS 111 Wales.”
Jason Killens, Chief Executive of the Welsh Ambulance Service, added: “NHS Direct Wales is a critical cog in the ambulance service wheel and we simply couldn’t operate without it.
“NHS Direct Wales/NHS 111 Wales has arguably been the best tool in our locker when it comes to Covid-19, in particular the Covid-19 symptom checker, which had more than a million visits in its first month.
“Thank you and congratulations to our amazing call handlers and clinicians on 20 years of making a difference to people in Wales.”