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J Med Internet Res. 2004 Jun 2;6(2):e17.

First evaluation of the NHS direct online clinical enquiry service: a nurse-led web chat triage service for the public.

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Academic Medical Centre, Department of Medical Informatics, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



NHS Direct is a telephone triage service used by the UK public to contact a nurse for any kind of health problem. NHS Direct Online (NHSDO) extends NHS Direct, allowing the telephone to be replaced by the Internet, and introducing new opportunities for informing patients about their health. One NHSDO service under development is the Clinical Enquiry Service (CES), which uses Web chat as the communication medium.


To identify the opportunities and possible risks of such a service by exploring its safety, feasibility, and patient perceptions about using Web chat to contact a nurse.


During a six-day pilot performed in an inner-city general practice in Coventry, non-urgent patients attending their GP were asked to test the service. After filling out three Web forms, patients used a simple Web chat application to communicate with trained NHS Direct triage nurses, who responded with appropriate triage advice. All patients were seen by their GP immediately after using the Web chat service. Safety was explored by comparing the nurse triage end point with the GP's recommended end point. In order to check the feasibility of the service, we measured the duration of the chat session. Patient perceptions were measured before and after using the service through a modified Telemedicine Perception Questionnaire (TMPQ) instrument. All patients were observed by a researcher who captured any comments and, if necessary, to assisted with the process.


A total of 25 patients (mean age 48 years; 57% female) agreed to participate in the study. An exact match between the nurse and the GP end point was found in 45% (10/22) of cases. In two cases, the CES nurse proposed a less urgent end point than the GP. The median duration of Web chat sessions was 30 minutes, twice the median for NHS Direct telephone calls for 360 patients with similar presenting problems. There was a significant improvement in patients' perception of CES after using the service (mean pre-test TMPQ score 44/60, post-test 49/60; p=0.008 (2-tailed)). Patients volunteered several potential advantages of CES, such as the ability to re-read the answers from the nurse. Patients consider CES a useful addition to regular care, but not a replacement for it.


Based on this pilot, we can conclude that CES was sufficiently safe to continue piloting, but in order to make further judgments about safety, more tests with urgent cases should be performed. The Web chat sessions as conducted were too long and therefore too expensive to be sustainable in the NHS. However, the positive reaction from patients and the potential of CES for specific patient groups (the deaf, shy, or socially isolated) encourage us to continue with piloting such innovative communication methods with the public.

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