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BACKGROUND: NHS 111 online offers 24-hour access to health assessment and triage. OBJECTIVES: This study examined pathways to care, differential access and use, and workforce impacts of NHS 111 online. This study compared NHS 111 with Healthdirect (Haymarket, Australia) virtual triage. DESIGN: Interviews with 80 staff and stakeholders in English primary, urgent and emergency care, and 41 staff and stakeholders associated with Healthdirect. A survey of 2754 respondents, of whom 1137 (41.3%) had used NHS 111 online and 1617 (58.7%) had not. RESULTS: NHS 111 online is one of several digital health-care technologies and was not differentiated from the NHS 111 telephone service or well understood. There is a similar lack of awareness of Healthdirect virtual triage. NHS 111 and Healthdirect virtual triage are perceived as creating additional work for health-care staff and inappropriate demand for some health services, especially emergency care. One-third of survey respondents reported that they had not used any NHS 111 service (telephone or online). Older people and those with less educational qualifications are less likely to use NHS 111 online. Respondents who had used NHS 111 online reported more use of other urgent care services and make more cumulative use of services than those who had not used NHS 111 online. Users of NHS 111 online had higher levels of self-reported eHealth literacy. There were differences in reported preferences for using NHS 111 online for different symptom presentations. CONCLUSIONS: Greater clarity about what the NHS 111 online service offers would allow better signposting and reduce confusion. Generic NHS 111 services are perceived as creating additional work in the primary, urgent and emergency care system. There are differences in eHealth literacy between users and those who have not used NHS 111 online, and this suggests that 'digital first' policies may increase health inequalities. LIMITATIONS: This research bridged the pandemic from 2020 to 2021; therefore, findings may change as services adjust going forward. Surveys used a digital platform so there is probably bias towards some level of e-Literacy, but this also means that our data may underestimate the digital divide. FUTURE WORK: Further investigation of access to digital services could address concerns about digital exclusion. Research comparing the affordances and cost-benefits of different triage and assessment systems for users and health-care providers is needed. Research about trust in virtual assessments may show how duplication can be reduced. Mixed-methods studies looking at outcomes, impacts on work and costs, and ways to measure eHealth literacy, can inform the development NHS 111 online and opportunities for further international shared learning could be pursued. STUDY REGISTRATION: This study is registered at the research registry (UIN 5392). FUNDING: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Health and Social Care Delivery Research Programme and will be published in full in Health and Social Care Delivery Research; Vol. 11, No. 5. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.

Original publication




Journal article


Health Soc Care Deliv Res

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