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Navigating the NHS

Seeking medical advice

When to dial 999

There are times when you should dial 999 right away and ask for an ambulance. This is for serious health concerns - for example after an accident involving injuries, or a suspected stroke or heart attack - where time is critical to get a patient treated as soon as possible.

When to call NHS advice lines

If you have concerns about a health issue and want advice quickly but it doesn’t seem serious enough to call 999 - and you cannot wait for a doctor’s appointment - the NHS has advice lines available.

  • In England, 111 is the 24-hour a day non-emergency number.
  • In Scotland, call NHS 24 on 111.
  • In Wales, call NHS Direct Wales 0845 4647.
  • In Northern Ireland, call your GP or the surgery’s out-of-hours number.

After speaking to the call centre, typically a trained nurse will call you back, ask you some questions, and then offer advice on self-care, or whether more urgent attention is required.

You’ll be asked to provide some basic information, including details of any medication you may be taking. If you’re calling on behalf of someone else, you’ll need to provide this information on their behalf.

Your problem will be assessed and you will be advised on the best course of action. If you’re feeling unwell at the time of your call, you may be told how to look after yourself at home, or you may be recommended to see a pharmacist (chemist).

If it’s something more serious, you may be advised to see another health professional, such as your doctor. Depending on your problem and how soon it is felt you need to be seen - and if your problem can’t wait until your next doctor’s appointment - you may be advised to speak with the on-call doctor who may invite you to attend the GP on-call centre, or arrange for an on-call GP to visit you at home.  If the problem is very serious, you may be advised to attend an accident and emergency (A&E) department or may be helped to access the ambulance service.

When to see your GP

There will be times when seeing your GP will still be the best option. Every surgery has different arrangements, but if appointments are not available most will have some system for 'unbooked' appointments.

Your GP will also have arrangements for out-of-hours cover, either by ringing the usual practice number or an out-of-hours number. It may not be one of the doctors from your own surgery covering at night or at weekends, as these times may be looked after by different teams.

When to see a pharmacist

Pharmacists don’t just dispense medicines that doctors prescribe. Pharmacists are trained to advise on many medical conditions. They can recommend over the counter treatments and advise whether further assessment is needed by a doctor.

A&E: When to go

Sometimes it is best to go straight to your nearest hospital’s A&E department. This will depend on the severity of a person's symptoms and concerns you may have.

Which is best to use?

Only you will know how concerned you are about yourself or someone else. Make a judgement about how serious the concern is and make a call to the most appropriate number.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on February 24, 2014

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